The percentage of plastic bottles recycled in the United Kingdom leapfrogged from an almost negligible amount in 2001 to a rate of 35 percent in 2007. That demonstrates what can take place when government, retailers and manufacturers make a commitment to recycling and recycled content, said Paul Davidson, plastics technology manager for the U.K.'s Waste & Resources Action Program.
The U.K.'s 2007 rate led to the collection of nearly 364 million pounds of plastic bottles and is a much higher rate than the comparable U.S. rate in 2007 of 24.6 percent for PET bottles and 26 percent for high density polyethylene bottles.
We have attacked plastic bottle collection with a vengeance, Davidson said at the Plastics Recycling Conference in Orlando. We have also had substantial growth in the U.K. with food-grade HDPE and PET plants and more investment is planned. Even though we are living in a capital-constrained world, people want to put money into plastics recycling.
Conference attendees learned of another U.K.-based recycling program: With funding from British venture capital firm Foresight Group and Welsh authorities, Closed Loop Recycling Ltd. has begun construction of its second food-grade plastics recycling plant in Flintshire, Wales.
The Flintshire plant is scheduled to open at the end of 2009 with capacity to recycle 100 million pounds of water, milk and soft drink bottles. Closed Loop's first plant, in Dagenham, England, opened in June with a capacity of 70 million pounds.
This plant will allow us to make a real impact on plastic recycling in North Wales and North West England, said Chris Dow, Closed Loop's managing director, also at the conference.
Several manufacturers, including Nampak Plastics Europe, Logoplaste, Solo Cup Europe, Reynolds Food Packaging, Britvic Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Enterprises have contracted to buy the plant's output, he said. We are closing the packaging loop in the U.K., Dow said. There is a campaign against waste and a gung-ho environment for recycling.
In addition to Closed Loop's initiatives, Plastics Sorting Ltd. has obtained funding to build a plant to recycle 40 million pounds of PET and HDPE in Ebbw Vale, Wales. The plant is scheduled to begin operations in March 2010.
Davidson said that working with industry and retailers, WRAP has flat-lined growth in the amount of packaging in the U.K. to roughly equal the growth in the country's gross domestic product (3.1 percent in 2007, according to the U.K. Office of National Statistics), and the goal is to deliver an absolute packaging reduction by 2010.
No one can drive change more than the food retailers, said Davidson, pointing out that upscale retailer Marks & Spencer is pressuring manufacturers to only use recyclable materials and to minimize the amount of packaging. When you have retailers apologizing to customers for something their supplier is giving them, that is a real motivation to the supply chain to increase the recyclability of their packaging, Davidson said.
Retailers also are pushing suppliers to focus on polypropylene and PET for food packaging and the use of bioplastics for perishable foods packaging, he said.
Davidson said the commitment of the U.K. dairy industry to use recycled HDPE in its milk containers has been particularly significant. The dairy industry has committed to 10 percent recycled content by 2010 and 50 percent by 2020, he said. That is very important because it cements the market for recycled HDPE.
WRAP and the U.K. government are working with dairy producers to redesign HDPE milk bottles for enhanced recyclability by changing the types of inks and adhesives used.
WRAP also aims to boost the recycling rate of mixed plastics, which currently is quite low. There is an awful lot of nonbottled plastics trays, cups, pots and films that are not being recycled, said Davidson. That number is almost double the current bottle stream in units, with some 22 billion items produced annually, he said.
Last summer, WRAP completed a study that suggested recycling of mixed plastics is economically feasible, Davidson said. Don't take a snapshot of prices now, because it will change, he said. There will be higher raw material values in the medium-term, and sorting costs are declining. He added that in the short term, the impact of declining prices for mixed plastics has been offset by changes in currency rates.
The study also suggests that separate plastic recycling facilities could adapt, using plastics that materials resource facilities separate out from PET and HDPE. Technology associated with MRFs is on an accelerated curve, Dow said. I think it will win the day and lead to a massive increase in recycling.
Dow said it is critical to find end markets in countries where materials are recycled. Like other countries, [the U.K. has] been too over-reliant on the export market to sell these materials, he said.
We need to develop domestic processing capacity and end markets to make sure the materials we collect can be recycled where they are collected.
As a business, Closed Loop is committed to the future of recycling, Dow said. Each ton of bottles that we recycle saves 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide, and using 50 percent recycled content in a plastic bottle reduces its carbon footprint by 25 percent. Our goal is to minimize the use of resources and fuel and achieve a significant reduction in carbon emissions.
The most recent U.K. study found that of 13 billion plastic bottles used annually in the country, 4.5 billion were recycled and the rest either were exported or sent to landfills.