It’s no wonder that UK recycling rates are not higher, when existing schemes are so lacking in common objectives or standards. Yet there are some really encouraging signs of progress.
At Zenith’s UK Soft Drinks Industry Conference last week, one of the speakers was Chris Dow, who came over from Australia after the Sydney Olympics to become Managing Director of Closed Loop Recycling, which has now opened the world’s first recycling operation that converts both PET and HDPE bottles into granules for reuse in new bottles. Then we visited the plant itself. I was greatly impressed. What did I learn ?
First, some remarkable statistics. In 2004 the UK recycled less than 40,000 tonnes of plastic bottles. In 2007 the amount had quadrupled to 182,000 tonnes. Figures are not finalised for 2008, but the expectation is around 230,000 tonnes. In 2007 the country’s total plastic bottle use was 550,000 tonnes (300 PET, 220 HDPE and 30 other), meaning we recycled 34%. Today the proportion could be above 40%.
Second, I discovered quite a bit about why we’re not doing better. And this is serious, because we could so easily achieve much more.
- There are more than 150 different local authority schemes for waste collection in the UK today.
- One in four Councils do not provide kerbside collection for plastic.
- Most schemes require a high level of commitment from the public.
For instance, my local authority is only just about to change from three separate rubbish collection days and won’t take cartons.
Third, I heard about the art of co-mingling. At present, most households have to separate different types of material themselves – requiring thought, storage space and effort. As a result, many people don’t bother. Whereas, if collections took all forms of dry waste, then more of us would take the trouble. So co-mingling of different materials would ensure higher rates of collection, as more of the effort would be absorbed by the local authorities and waste management companies.
Fourth, I was fascinated how HDPE caps and PET bottles are separated. It’s done simply by using water. Caps made of HDPE float. PET sinks. Magic.
Fifth, apparently even a tiny amount of bioplastics can make a whole batch of recycled PET unfit for blow moulding back into new PET bottles.
Sixth, it seems that bottles containing up to 50% recycled PET can be recycled again and again, while 100% recycled PET has a more limited life.
Seventh, I was rather concerned about how much energy recycling uses. If you add up the rinsing out at home, the transport and separation, the recycling heat and energy, the residual waste, plus all the buildings, equipment, staff and their travel to work, it’s a very substantial cost. Then, it does mean earth’s limited natural resources are being used more than once and that has to be wiser than not.
Eighth and this may happen one day in Britain, in Mexico they are already sifting through landfill sites to reclaim plastic bottles and other materials for recycling.
Finally, I understand that, although it is behind much of the continent, the UK catching up fast and a lot more recycling capacity will become available in the next few years. Closed Loop Recycling can handle 35,000 tonnes at its first site and is already planning a second to handle over 50,000 tonnes.
Do come to one of our future conferences. You may learn a lot. I always do.