It was great to see the UK government show ambition towards reducing our plastic waste challenges in their recent budget announcement. From 2022, a levy will be placed on firms that do not have at least 30% recycled content in their packaging, which is predicted to increase the use of recycled plastic materials by up to 40%. By placing impetus on the producer, we should also begin to see demand for new plastic begin to reduce in this respect.
However, there are real challenges with any blanket policy like this. Why is 30% a target? Is that reasonable for all types of plastic in all types of products? We’ve seen clearly in our lab that different polymers – or even the same polymer in different products – have drastically different recycling parameters. 30% as a hard and fast rule is not ambitious enough for some, and an unreachable target that will sacrifice product integrity for others…
While reducing use of new plastic and increasing demand for recyclate is good, it is important to maintain high quality of this recycled content – particularly after multiple mechanical recycling cycles. An efficient waste management system of all plastics is needed to keep up with this increased demand, and indeed improves the quality of our recyclate. Our fear is that the price of reaching this recycled content will increase – as we do not have enough quality recyclate to hand – and this will offset avoiding the levy. Packaging coming out of this must also then be recyclable, not be used as filler in unrecyclable black plastic or composites, thus avoiding replacing one type of plastic waste with another. A more nuanced approach is needed, built on evidence and infrastructure investment. Blanket bans and interventions are easy for governments to do, but have real consequences when you cannot meet demand across the supply chain.
Encouraging the valorisation of plastic waste through these measures is important – but in the end won’t mean much if we do not have the collection and processing system is there to keep up.