One of the first things you should know about waste is this: all waste has a value. Some wastes, such as non-hazardous sludge, can be sold directly from the producer to a consumer as a product. For other waste types, the value is a little more complicated. Processing costs will decrease the value of a material, as will an excess flooding the market. All of this means that when we look at waste management solutions, the cost of a solution can make it impossible to achieve. This is certainly the case for plastic recycling.
Plastic has become one of the most talked about waste materials around the world. The impact it is having is at the forefront of the global environmental movement and it is triggering far more serious action from governments around the world.
However, the economics surrounding plastic waste and recycling are incredibly complex. Here in the UK, the value of some plastics means that it isn’t even worthwhile for councils to collect them because they would make a huge loss in doing so. Indeed, Manchester only collects 3 types of plastic for this very reason.
If you are interested in seeing how much plastic is worth per tonne, the letsrecycle website is really informative, showing how the value changes month by month. Here you can see that, for example, the value of plastic bottles gradually rose over 2018 but the variance in value increased too.
However, some plastics simply aren’t worth collecting because they are too complex to recycle or would cost too much. For example, yogurt pots are often made using a mixture of plastics which is harder to recycle and black ready meal trays are not easily identified by sorting machines. This means that while those plastics would certainly have a value, the work required to recycle them makes it impractical. In most cases, these plastics are used for energy reclamation instead.
Another issue within municipal recycling is that different councils have different technologies available. Councils that have machines that can differentiate between plastics are much more likely to improve their recycling rate and increase the number of plastics they are able to collect. Manchester doesn’t have the technology to separate and sort different types of plastic so they rely on Manchester’s citizens to sort their waste themselves.
But even when a council does have the best technology, collecting, sorting and recycling plastic waste still comes with a cost. Indeed, 7% of Manchester City Council’s 2019 budget will fund waste collection, disposal and recycling services. While this doesn’t give a break down of the cost to recycling plastic specifically, it does show how big an issue waste is for the city.
Supply and Demand
While all waste plastic might be worth something to someone, in the vast majority of cases, manufacturers are only looking for high grade plastic. This means that while the council could collect low grade plastic for recycling, they would be less likely to find a buyer for it. However, this doesn’t mean that businesses could not sell their low grade plastic waste – they would just need to find a buyer.
As more and more people become aware of the problems with plastic, businesses are increasingly working on ways to use recycled plastic instead of new materials. This is great news because it means that not only are the municipal recycling rates going up, but demand is rising too. However, the cost of recycled plastic is still higher than new plastic so there is still no economic motivation for packaging manufacturers to make the switch.
Encouraging The Use of Recycled Materials
At the moment, the burden of recycling falls to local councils who may or may not have the technology they need at their disposal. This means that there is a big difference between what can be recycled in one area and what can be recycled in another. It also means that recycling rates vary widely too.
Moving the burden away from councils and onto packaging producers is one method the government is considering through a Plastic Packaging Tax. This would form an extension to the current Packaging Waste Producer Responsibilities which requires producers to limit the amount of waste that ends up in landfill, increase the amount of waste that is recycled and recovered and reduce the amount of packaging in the first place.
If the Plastic Packaging Tax is approved, it will come into effect in 2022 and be the first tax of its kind. The tax will apply to plastics containing less than 30% recycled content being produced here in the UK and those imported from around the world too. By making plastics easier to recycle and encouraging companies to use more recycled plastics, we could create a circular economy with this material.
Motivating the Masses
But even with businesses highly motivated to increase recyclability and use recycled plastics, the system still balances on the ability of citizens to recycle properly. Unfortunately, some people still believe that recycling isn’t worth the bother and won’t even attempt to separate their waste. Bringing more people on board with recycling is still a key area for improvement.
While education is a big part of understanding the impact of recycling, introducing a bottle deposit scheme could be a practical incentive people need to recycle properly. The Government is currently looking into this idea, noting that countries with this scheme in place tend to have significantly higher recycling rates. “Similar schemes already operate successfully in other countries – for example, total return rates of drinks containers in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden are at 90%, 92%, 98%, 92% and 85% respectively.” By contrast, just 43% of bottles are recycled in the UK.
Some supermarkets are already trialling bottle deposit schemes of their own and Iceland reported strong customer engagement back in January, with a daily average of 2,583 bottles recycled across five sites in November last year. These trials certainly suggest that there is interest amongst the population and by offering an incentive as small as a 10p coupon, Iceland shows that the solution doesn’t have to be that expensive either.
Waste may not seem like the most exciting product but it does have a value and there is a growing market for all kinds of different waste products. Plastic is one of the biggest issues we are facing in terms of environmental impact and increasing concern amongst consumers so looking at the economics of plastic recycling is something we would encourage everyone to do.
While we are all familiar with the environmental costs of plastics, looking at the economic costs is the best way to see what is holding our recycling rates back and offers a glimpse at how we might directly influence the market into better behaviours. Shifting attitudes is always a long process but the UK seems to be waking up to the problems waste can cause. We hope that introducing new measures to increase recycling rates and the use of recycled plastic itself will be the beginning of many more changes to come.