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Waste not want: the future of UK plastic recycling

Many of us are familiar with images of the great Pacific garbage patch or marine turtles which have swallowed plastic bags.

Closer to home we’re probably also a bit confused about what our local authority can and cannot accept in our plastic recycling bins, and, importantly, in what state they want it. Lids on, lids off? Crushed? Washed? Can yoghurt pots go in? What about bread bags or crisp packets? And what about things made of multiple materials?

Plastic recycling seems complex and difficult and we are right to be concerned about the impacts waste plastic is having on our ecosystems. In 2021 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in the UK, yet just 44.4% of that was recycled (DEFRA, 2022). But what is also clear is that recycling needs to be part of the solution, as switching to other materials can increase waste, carbon footprint and lead to unintended consequences.

Not fit for purpose

A core part of the issue is a lack of standardisation across UK waste infrastructure. In the UK there are 391 different local authorities, with an estimated 39 different bin regimes. This is coupled with approximately 3,500 waste recycling plants which have varying capacities and capabilities in infrastructure. In other words, one plant might need you to take the lids off your plastic bottle whilst another would prefer you to leave them on.

Add to this the huge variety in packaging types, the many different polymer types used to make them, and also various colouring, additives and labels to contend with, and standardising the waste system becomes much more challenging.

What can be done?

Our research for the ‘One Bin to Rule Them All’ project has looked at how plastic recycling, particularly of household waste, can be simplified. This three-year interdisciplinary project has taken a holistic approach to the plastics supply chain, working with industry, policy, and importantly households, to better understand plastic recycling.

The main premise of One Bin is to simplify plastics recycling for households – one bin for all plastic packaging waste – while using advanced sorting strategies to simultaneously improve value for industry. This has two main benefits: 

  • It simplifies household practices by making them consistent. Anything households think is plastic packaging goes in the bin. This therefore overcomes the multiple different local authority rules and bin regimes. 
  • Through the development of a materials hierarchy we are able to determine the most appropriate fate for different forms of household packaging. Our analysis has identified a standard set of materials from which the most economic value can be recovered as well as the decisions to be made in a recycling facility that create that value.

Importance for policy

Our findings come at an important time for UK plastics policy. As the urgency to find a solution to the problem of plastic waste becomes more apparent, so several policies are being rolled out to try to tackle the issues.

These include policies which place more emphasis on plastic producers such as the Plastic Packaging Tax, or Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), alongside a focus on consumers through Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) where consumers will be paid to return plastic bottles. There is also work being done to improve consistency in kerbside collections with local authorities and also a proposed ban on the export of plastic waste by 2027. 

But are these policies enough? And can they address the issues and complexity of the current fragmented and siloed plastic waste infrastructure?

Our research demonstrates how a One Bin system, underpinned by an open-source hierarchy of fates for end-of-life plastics and integrated with micro-level understanding of household practices, offers a roadmap to standardise and simplify plastic recycling. We show how simplified policies which draw on the best practices of our report are required to create a robust and sustainable circular plastics economy.

Finally, we also deliver three best practice goals to demonstrate where policy and investment can tackle the challenge of plastic waste. These are:

  • the need for better understanding of consumer practice
  • standardisation and consistency across the supply chain
  • maximising value and sustainability of plastic materials via an open-source hierarchy of fates.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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