Mandated recycling content requirements are needed to ensure an even playing field, say industry figures.
Mounting corporate casualties in the plastics recycling industry have thrown the spotlight on the way the sector and the market it serves operates. The slump in oil price and cheap virgin material have undoubtedly added to the financial challenges facing UK recyclers, but that is not the whole story.
For some, the current system rewards exporters, while not enough recycled material is used in end products to ensure the industry is viable.
Mandated recycled content requirements may be the only way to ensure those leading sustainability are not disadvantaged, according to many, including Recoup chief executive Stuart Foster.
Others are more forthright. Peter Atterby, managing director of Louth-based compounder Luxus, says manufacturers, retailers and government needed to show a level of commitment to buy recycled thermoplastics. Recent market conditions have been both unusual and unsustainable, Atterby says, with the commitment to purchasing reprocessed compounds diminishing in the drive to maximise opportunist profits.
“It has indeed been difficult in utility recycling as the oil price has continued to fall. The recycling market must change,” he says.
“We believe that all stakeholders should make the shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to manage their environmental impacts.”
Atterby also wants the PRN system to be overhauled, a view shared by many in the UK industry, not least Mike Jordan, owner of Summit Systems, who recently closed down his plastics recycling operation, Boomerang, due to cost pressures. Says Jordan: “The government needs to take plastics recycling seriously. This means reforming the existing PRN system, which currently encourages the export of waste material, where sorting can be done much more cheaply than is the case here in the UK.”
Such comments come against the backdrop of recently released provisional 2015 packaging recycling data showing an unexpected surplus of 35 kilotonnes of plastic packaging recycled against the targets, and record quarterly plastic recycling figures.
At the same time the proportion of the plastic tonnage exported for recycling in the first nine months of the year averaged at around 60%, while fourth quarter data showed the plastic packaging exported for recycling accounting for closer to 70% of the total.
Yet not everyone is downbeat. Austrian recycling machinery maker Erema says the investment mood for recycling equipment is positive, if a little cautious – both in Europe and the UK.
Chief executive Klaus Reichtinger claims many recyclers expect the tide to turn in the mid- to long-term and for oil prices to rise again. Legislation – notably the landfill ban and higher recycling quotas – will prompt the availability of material to rise sharply in the coming years.