Every year over half a million tonnes of UK plastic waste intended for recycling is rejected due to contamination. The UK also exports more than 60% of its plastic waste burden to other countries. The existing UK plastics system is complex and confusing, but emerging regulations aim to simplify it and promote a circular economy. In this article, Adeyemi Adelekan and Maria Sharmina reflect on these regulations and discuss how to foster a circular plastics system within a complex regulatory landscape.
- As new plastic packaging policies are introduced, the UK government is keen to understand their impact and unintended consequences for the industry.
- Policy successes in boosting demand for recycled plastics are undermined by a failure to enable a sufficient supply of recyclates.
- We recommend that the emerging plastics policies should be technology-agnostic in relation to digital tags, while standardising key aspects of infrastructure for easy mass adoption.
- The government should also provide clarity and long-term commitment on what the plastics tax receipts will fund.
Policies for a plastics circular economy
In the context of the UK’s plastics sector, recent policy developments include the plastic packaging tax, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), and the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). These initiatives align with the government’s objective of standardising collection practices and streamlining recycling, but to what extent are these developments supporting or impeding a circular economy?
One Bin to Rule Them All
Our research project, titled ‘One Bin to Rule Them All,’ examines the material, economic, and social dimensions of streamlining the plastics collection and recycling system in the UK. The project involves more than twenty companies and local and national policy-makers. Within the economics work package, we have worked with stakeholders from across the plastics supply chain to co-develop collaborative business models for a simplified circular plastics system. Our study’s findings reveal the impact of emerging legislation on both the sector and stakeholders’ individual business models.
Plastics policies aren’t only about plastics
Thanks to the variety of plastics and their useful properties, this material is widely employed in numerous industries, including food & beverage, construction, and fashion. So, policies seemingly targeted only at the plastics sector would inevitably affect other sectors, with often unintended consequences.
For the plastics sector, the policy emphasis on bottle-to-bottle recycling, with beverage manufacturers striving to stay below the plastics tax threshold, has resulted in a shortage of bottle flakes used in polypropylene (PP) production for food-grade packaging. This scarcity and resulting high cost of feedstock are particularly detrimental to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Many stakeholders unable to afford the limited local feedstock are resorting to importing feedstock. This practice contradicts the policy’s objective to bolster a local market and domestic recycling infrastructure.
Alongside emerging regulations, new technologies are on the rise. Numerous ongoing trials aim to evaluate the feasibility and integration of such technologies into plastics production and recycling systems. While these early technological developments are promising, stakeholders are reluctant to invest in their mass adoption, with implementation costs exceeding the fees imposed by the regulations.
Government’s responses following the policy consultations could have emphasised (1) the need to encourage a variety of digital technologies beyond barcodes for tracking plastics, (2) how emerging technologies can be integrated with the UK’s existing recycling system, and (3) how the plastics tax receipts and fees will be channelled to improve the infrastructures and practices. Our interviews with stakeholders show that this lack of policy clarity on the interconnected aspects of technology, investments and business models might be impeding government’s circular economy transition plans, a key component of their 2030 Net Zero ambitions.
Policy directions for a circular plastics economy in the UK
A circular plastics economy in the UK needs a stable recyclates market and long-term but adaptable infrastructures for material collection and processing. Achieving this goal requires collaboration, and stakeholders are more inclined to collaborate when they have clear guidance on what they need to invest in and how they would benefit.
Chief among the investments is technology, recognised for its role in enabling new sustainable business models and promoting collaboration among stakeholders. Policy support for such technology in the plastics sector must balance innovation with standardisation. Emerging policies around digital waste tracking should remain technology-agnostic to accommodate many innovations for tracking, scanning, and recycling plastics. Equally important is the standardisation of methods for scanning digital tags that would be embedded in plastic products. Standardisation is important for recovery facilities that might have to retrofit their existing infrastructure to accommodate various digital tags.
While the government intends to mandate the use of tags and markers on packaging, emerging policies need progressively stricter targets and higher fees. Our engagement with stakeholders highlights that low fees will not incentivise technology investments. The existing 30% recycled content target and £210 fee per tonne of packaging that falls short of the recycling target are insufficient to drive investments in new tagging technologies. Stakeholders view paying the fee as more cost-effective than investing in digital tags. Tightening standards for recycled content and penalties with a clear timeframe would encourage long-term investment in technologies for tracking and sorting plastics, ultimately increasing feedstock availability and recycled content in packaging.
As higher fees could unintentionally encourage cheaper non-plastic alternatives that might be difficult to recycle, the emerging policies should anticipate such scenarios. The government needs to offer clear long-term regulatory certainty, not just for initial funding of a new recycling system but also for its sustained operation, given its lifespan of several decades. Local authorities should disclose how the received funds will be used to enhance local plastics recycling. Such transparency can ensure public and stakeholders’ trust in the government’s intentions to transform the UK’s recycling system, instead of tinkering around with alternative collection methods.
Sustainable plastics need sustained support. As the government enacts new policies, they can encourage a circular economy system for plastics through being technology-agnostic, standardising key infrastructures, and committing funding both in the short and long terms.