Europe heading for dismal fail on its zero waste policy on plastics

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The plastics industry is not going to achieve zero waste to landfill until 2037, which is a full 17 years later than its stated 2020 target.

This is the the damning conclusion of new research from European trade association PlasticsEurope which has examined current progress to date on recycling and recovery of waste plastics across the EU.

Back in 2009 the sector set itself the goal of reaching zero plastics to landfill by 2020, but the report states that unless there is a greater sense of stakeholder urgency, this will only be achieved by 2037.

The UK in particular is performing badly with a total plastics recovery rate of just 27.3% - over 70% of this material is still landfilled, placing it in the bottom seven of the EU27+2 countries for diversion.

However last year 1.04m tonnes of plastic post-consumer waste was recovered in the UK, representing an increase in recycling of 9.1% and 11.7% in energy recovery compared to 2010.

While the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has introduced higher recycling targets for plastics, which are set to rise from 32% currently to 57% by 2017, the move has proved controversial.

Many industry experts believe meeting these targets will prove impossible unless there is significant investment in the logistics of collection and recycling such materials.

According to British Plastics Federation (BPF) public & industrial affairs director Philip Law, the Government's policy is "ill thought out" and will leave companies obligated under the targets to foot the bill for recycling that can't be delivered.

It's a view echoed by Packaging & Films Association CEO Barry Turner: "The Government continue to say that the onus is on packaging producers to ensure that enough material is collected, but in reality it is local councils that control collection.

"The fact is that, in the absence of resource-based recycling targets, there is no incentive for councils to invest in collection services - even less so when their budgets are already stretched to the limit."

Compounding the problem is Defra's recent downward revisions of UK recycling capacity estimates and the absence of material-specific targets placed on local authorities.

On a brighter note, the PlasticsEurope report notes that some overall progress has been made in capturing value from plastics waste. In EU-27, 4.8% more post-consumer plastic waste was recovered compared to 2010 while the amount ending up in landfills decreased in a similar way.

According to the study, achieving the zero waste 2020 objective would prevent an estimated 80m tonnes of materials from going to landfill, representing some €78bn in cost savings.

The best way, however, to go about things would be to reduce plastic materials in use of packaging to start with and that could be done immediately without any problems other that those of the plastics industry losing money.

Overpackaging of products in plastics, often mixed with paper and other things, which make recycling a nightmare, is still going strong and, in some cases it is getting worse rather than better. Instead of reduction of plastic use the target is to reduce that amount that goes to landfill after it has been with the consumer. This is about as useful as putting the cart before the horse.

When a product has already been “welded” into plastic does it really have to be “welded” in even more plastic just so the packaging is huge in order to hang it prominently on displays? I think not for if I want to/need to buy that product I will regardless of how prominently it is being displayed.

A general reduction of the use of plastic in packaging – what is, after all wrong with card; it was done years ago without any problems – should be the aim but, as said, there is no profit in it for the industry and neither for the politicians who get their pockets filled with backhanders by the industry and that's why we are in the dilemma that we are in as far as waste, and not only plastic waste, is concerned.

Reduce use before attempting a reduction in the amount that goes to landfill and change the material of packaging. This can be done, by legislation if necessary, tomorrow and the zero to landfill would soon be achieved. But that would be too simple, I guess.

© 2013