Processing our problem with plastics
By World Infrastructure Journal-
Months after a Greenpeace report found that the vast majority of the 210,000 tonnes of plastic waste that the UK exports for recycling was ending up in Turkey “by roads, in fields and in waterways,” it has been announced the UK will develop its internal infrastructure to process more of its plastic at home. However, while this move is welcome, and necessary to ensure that environmental costs are not simply passed on, the lack of emphasis being placed on holding the producers of those plastics accountable is concerning.
Last week, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow announced that the Department for International Trade (DIT) would be working with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to develop “plastic processing infrastructure in the UK to reduce the need for exports. ” The Minister also announced that Defra may look to bring forward the planned export ban, which would come into effect in 2025 and ban the export of plastics to countries that do not participate in the OECD.
These measures come in response to a recently published Greenpeace report, which found waste from major UK retailers (including 7 of the 10 largest grocery chains) being discarded and burned at illegal dumps. Estimating roughly 210,000 tonnes, or 40 per cent of the UK’s exported waste, was being disposed of illegally across 10 sites in southern Turkey, the report also found COVID-19 within the waste, indicating that it was less than a year old.
As Steve Spencer, Managing Director at Bright Green Plastics, pointed out, it is “common knowledge that the UK’s capability to produce recycled plastic compounds is currently under capacity,” and so the promise of investment into the industry is exciting. Manufacturing and consumption are set to change for the better with the upcoming UK plastic tax, which will apply to all manufactured on imported plastic that does not contain a minimum of 30 per cent recycled material. Yet this will be insufficient if the UK is to truly tackle its waste problem and meet the goals set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan. What is needed is a wholesale revision of the UK’s consumer economy’s approach to packaging, shipping, and disposal.
Private organisations are making serious headway in finding solutions to the plastics issue in terms of disposal, and will require continued support in their efforts to innovate. Bright Green Plastics, a Yorkshire-based firm that specialises in recovering discarded plastic, has recently invested a seven-figure sum into upgrades of its facilities. These include new washing and extruding machinery, which will increase by 65 per cent their already impressive processing capacity of 40,000 tonnes. The upgrades will also increase the rate of recovery and quality of the ready-to-recycle product that Bright Green Plastics produces from the post-consumer waste.
However, if the UK is to truly get on top of its waste problem, disposal cannot be the focal point. The UK currently generates more waste per person than any nation on earth, save for the United States. While this problem can be viewed through an individual lens (and we could all do better to be less wasteful) the crux of the issue is that there are a startling lack of incentives or penalties that would persuade the major players in Britain consumer economy to change their approaches to packaging and shipping. The institution of single-use plastics bans and a more aggressive approach to the UK’s existing extended producer responsibility (EPR) programmes are the only way to affect the large-scale change necessary – but they have to be implemented soon, otherwise they might not be able to make the necessary impact until its too late.
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