I knew that council recycling provision and services varied across the UK but while I have been abroad, it seems those differences have developed into rifts of enormous proportions.
Here in Huddersfield we have a green bin collection for recyclables. However the only plastic packaging they take is plastic bottles. Other types of plastic such as yoghurt pots, margarine tubs, plastic trays, polystyrene, plastic carriers and film are specifically banned.
This does not mean these products cannot be recycled but, for a number of reasons, it is not always viable to do. As the British Plastics Federation explains: “Nearly all types of plastics can be recycled, however the extent to which they are recycled depends upon technical, economic and logistic factors.” Their extremely interesting website goes on to note that “As a valuable and finite resource, the optimum recovery route for most plastic items at the ‘end-of-life’ is to be recycled, preferably back into a product that can then be recycled again and again and so on. The UK uses over 5 million tonnes of plastic each year of which an estimated 24% is currently being recovered or recycled.” !!!!
If all plastics can be recycled, and recycling is the ideal option, why does Huddersfield Council only collect bottles? Well, while private companies might invest in the more esoteric forms of plastic recycling and undertake research, local councils, for technical, economic and logistical reasons, have tended to stick to recycling simple plastic. For sure some councils do more than others but as Lets Recycle notes “local authorities are responding to the pleas of residents to allow them to recycle mixed plastics, such as yogurt pots, but the practice is still relatively rare due to the volatility of end markets and lack of UK processing capacity for mixed plastic material. ”
Basically, you know where you are PET bottles, they are easy to recycle and there is a good end market for the recycled product. Plus the problems with mixed plastic recycling are many. For instance food containers are banned from many recycling schemes because dirty plastic can contaminate the load, the payback is low and workers don’t want to work with rotting and smelly food wraps. While plastic recyclers are working on ways to deal with dirty plastic, the new technology is expensive and the market for the end product still uncertain.
The other problem is identification. To recycle plastic you have to know what plastic you are dealing with. Different polymers need to be recycled differently. It was in recognition of this that the plastic code system (where different types of plastic are identified with a number) was implemented. However this is not compulsory. Furthermore there are now more plastics then there are numbers with more complex plastics are being developed daily. A plastic recycling batch can contain 5% of unknown plastic and no more – so you can see the problem with recycling unidentified plastics.
It is possible to identify unmarked plastic using light beams. I came across this technology when I wanted some plastic film identifying. The company I used told me the process was extremely expensive and so only used for research purposes. Consequently, most U.K. based plastic-recycling plants tend to rely on the numbering system. Which limits where they collect their plastic from. They want big batches of known plastic not piles of unidentified rubbish. They usually take industrial waste and offcuts and, of course, the easily collected and identified plastic bottles.
To see how a pretty-basic, fairly standard, plastic recycle plant works you can read up on my visit to Lynwood Plastics where I saw them making recycled plastic lumber and buckets.
This is how it is in Huddersfield. In Sussex you can recycle all waste plastics including food wrappers and unidentified plastic objects through the council recycling scheme! Though you are supposed to wash the food containers first, it must be assumed that the system can deal with those who don’t. And apparently the recycling plant uses light technology to identify rogue plastics. This works on all except black plastic as the darker dies stops the light beams from passing through. In short they have a new and state of the art recycling plant which recycles pretty much everything but polystyrene, fruit nets, blister packs, crisps, sweets, biscuit wrappers and pet food pouches. You can read all about their super-duper recycling plant
So are times are changing? Well the government wants to “move towards a ‘zero waste economy’.” Which, as they explain, “doesn’t mean that no waste exists – it’s a society where resources are fully valued, financially and environmentally. It means we reduce, reuse and recycle all we can, and throw things away only as a last resort…. and some councils are better at it than others.”
Better than others? That is putting it rather mildly. Recycling provision, for plastic at least, varies wildly across the UK. Despite being concerned with the levels of rubbish produced, the UK government, unlike some other parts of Europe, has no standardized way of collecting or managing household waste. Nor does it specify how recycling targets should be met
Rather, as this recycling guide explains,
it’s up to the local authority to implement schemes suited to their area. Services and facilities thus vary greatly, from separated waste collection to the single kerbside “green box” system. Variation seems endless, and it’s due to the following:
Cost – Investment in new recycling facilities is expensive, so cash-strapped councils stick to established recycling processes, (paper, glass).
Targets – Statutory recycling targets are weight-based, shifting focus onto heavier waste streams (glass, metal) at the expense of lighter plastics.
Logistics – Collection can be problematic in rural (long distances between homes, scarcity of recycling facilities) and urban areas (limited space, tower blocks).
No nationwide framework – Industry bodies, charities and campaign groups encourage best practice but there is still a lack of government guidance.
Hmmmm. You can find more information on different recycle services here, and see how good your council is with this interactive map. Karen Cannard is, as ever, a wonderful rubbish resource. You can read her post on plastic recycling here.
But of course the best way to deal with plastic trash is to not create it in the first place!