Thursday, 18 June 2009

Why I'm glad to be just a consumer.

Blow me down with a feather if sorting out our waste isn't complicated.

Not only have you got to figure out what rubbish goes where and what you can recycle in which bin, you've also got to remember to put it out on the right day.

Yep...forget it one week and you're stuffed.

And should you decide to actively REDUCE your waste, you're then faced with juggling new habits like remembering your bags, using up leftovers and ditching the disposables in favour of reusable and refillable alternatives. What an effort eh! Introducing change into your lifestyle is pretty hard work at first, but it really does get much easier along the way.

Then getting the rest of your family to play ball complicates things even more, especially if some aren't so keen to follow your vision, for fear of it making life tougher for no obvious personal benefit or immediate gain.

All I can say is, thank goodness I'm just an ordinary consumer and not someone who has to do this for our country. One set of bins to manage is more than enough thank you.

Can you actually imagine what it would be like if you were tasked with tackling everyone else's rubbish?

Having to make decisions about what can be collected, how it is sorted and getting the best price for your materials is more than enough to make my brain ache, not to mention the issues of providing good value for taxpayers and meeting environmental targets! And then there's the task of getting the public on board too.

Yes, it's a tricky job but someone has to do it. And having attended a WRAP conference, yesterday, I'm just glad it's not me!

The photo you see here is the panel of speakers at yesterday's dissemination event called "Shaping the Future of Mixed Plastics".

As definitions go, the focus of the event was on mixed plastic packaging, which in turn can be defined as two types: rigid plastic, e.g. punnets, yoghurt pots and food trays as well as films such as plastic bags and packets. Plastic bottles are not included in the definition, as these are already managed effectively.

And the purpose of the event? To demonstrate to the industry the results of a UK-based mixed plastics recycling trial and the opportunities for all those involved in the recycling chain, including the manufacturers, retailers, local authorities, waste management companies, reprocessors AND - last but definitely not least - the consumer.

If you're wondering what the fuss is about, here's the background from WRAP.

"Mixed plastics is an area of growing importance. This is due to increasing pressure from consumers, environmental issues rising up the public policy agenda and packaging being increasingly seen as a central concern in the waste and resource efficiency debate. The pressure on local authorities to improve recycling performance has also added to the mixed plastics debate.

With approximately one million tonnes of domestic mixed plastics packaging waste arising in the UK each year and this tonnage growing, more needs to be done to understand how best to collect mixed plastics, to sort and reprocess them and to how they can be remade. Going forward, it is imperative that businesses design and manufacture plastics packaging which is ultimately more recyclable."

So in terms of outcome, the results of WRAP's investigations are indeed positive. Dr Liz Goodwin, the organisation's director, opened the conference with the good news that following a very detailed research programme, WRAP has now proved that even against the economic downturn, it is commercially viable to recycle mixed plastics in the UK and is committed to driving this forward over the next decade.

But consumers who have been pushing for better recycling opportunities, daren't start getting cock-a-hoop with excitement yet because despite the positive feedback about WRAP's trials and its vision for recycling in this country, judging by yesterday's fairly heated debate, we're merely at the start of a long and winding road.

Firstly, there are the MRFs (Materials Reclamation Facilities) that need to be adapted to enable the sorting of new types of materials. Existing facilities would need to undergo a review to improve processes and perhaps technologies. And financial issues would need to be addressed, not least securing new markets for materials recovered.

In certain cases PRFs would need to be built - a MRF type of facility, specifically design to deal with the complexities of plastic materials - which would require capital investment, even if they are attached to existing premises.

Reprocessors would also need to adapt to the opportunity and some are already demonstrating scepticism over the quality of materials that would be supplied by MRFs\PRFs. They will need strong assurances that they will be able to buy sufficient amounts of uncontaminated product to enable them to create good quality pellets and flakes.

Councils would also need to consider logistics to integrate the collection of materials into existing services - and having overheard many a conversation amongst local authority representatives that's not such an easy task either.

But where problems exist, also lie new opportunities, such as "front of store" take-back collections as trialled by Sainsbury's, the retailer that was involved in the test case-study. Consumers have been demanding such facilities for decades. At last it could be a reality and if the trial is anything to go by it would provide a good quality of material too.

Throughout the conference programme came positive findings that as a country it is technically and financially feasible for us to recycle mixed plastics and that domestic and overseas markets are viable. It was also encouraging to hear developments that even film processing is commercially viable using new technology that can create 99.1% purity in a material that would otherwise be buried or burned.

Despite a number of uncertainties as demonstrated by some of the delegates, WRAP's vision is a confident one, which by 2020 will see the reprocessing of approximately 500,000 tonnes of mixed plastic per year. It is also aiming for the creation of food grade PP from the mixed plastics stream, which as far as plastic recycling is concerned, seems to be the "holy grail". And in doing so, it expects the manufacturing industry to save 1/2 tonne of carbon dioxide for every tonne of recycled product that replaces virgin material.

Of course, now the initial trials are over, it's on with the show. To kick it all off WRAP is launching a £2 million investment capital competition to encourage a new facility to be installed and operating by 31st March 2011, with a commitment to at least 70% of recycled outputs used as a substitute for virgin plastic.

Phew. It really is a complicated business, isn't it, pulling everyone together to help reduce our country's waste. I just wish everyone the best of luck on every front as we're most definitely experiencing a changing landscape in the world of recycling.

And despite feeling like a bit of a cuckoo in the nest yesterday, it was good to get an insight into an industry that affects us all.

But as I said, I'm glad I'm just an ordinary consumer, who left to my own devices chooses to reduce my household waste, with no major issue of personal logistics and causing no trouble to local authorities (well I try not to)!

And if I'm a good girl and don't contaminate my load, I can even give the MRFs and the reprocessors what they want, good clean recyclate, all without hardly lifting a finger......Anything to make it easier for those who take the trouble to make it easier for us!

It just goes to show that taking the trouble to reduce waste at home, is far less complicated than trying to reduce it further down the chain.

I now can't believe I was worried about my Recycle Week pledge, for next week.

Compared to what the recycling industry has got ahead of itself, my own challenge seems one hell of a breeze.

So when I put it into context, it hardly seems any effort at all.

Oh bother...who am I trying to kid?

With only the weekend to go, it's getting more and more scary each day!


The trial was conducted through a consortium of companies. Led by Nextek, it included Valpak, Bowman Process Technology, Linpac, Closed Loop Recycling and CeDo, as well as Sainsbury's.

For those who are interested and have a head for great heights and figures, the detailed results of the trial will be available on the WRAP website from Friday 19th June.



John costigane said...

Hi Mrs A,

WRAP do lead the way in many instances. PRF's are yet another idea for the future which seems worthwhile. The major downside is the lack of finance to deal effectively, and quickly, with new practices. AD is a recent example with only £20 million put aside by the government for this essential technology.

Their 'talk' is great but the 'action' is less effective. They need a big budget to deal with all the problems and are stuck until after the election when the probable Conservative government will take a dim view of quangos.

Their links to Labour are a drawback in that they must promote government policy, including EfW! They are also a big target for the Tory Press for obvious reasons. This leads to claims in the papers followed by frenzied denials by Wrap. So much hot air, so little worth.

Recycling which should be everyone's activity is a hot potato, which devalues genuine effort.

Zero Waste allow individuals to avoid the nonsense and promote a better future, regardless.


Hi John - I think you've captured the essence there very much. And we really do need the government to put more money behinds what are such vital projects.

At least from the retailer perspective, the representative from Sainsbury's was making very positive noises about the company's commitment to reducing packaging and capturing more recyclates through potential front-of-store outlets.

But you're right, until that happens and the chain is in place, reducing rubbish and the amount of packaging on the home-front, is a contribution that many people could make.

Layla said...

Wow, this is all very exciting!! :)

Thanks for the detailed report!! :)

I'm not sure if there even is something like WRAP in our country?!! :) So you guys are lucky to at least have 'em!! & textile banks, & charity 2nd hand shops & such!!

I'm not sure how smart it is to try to get a grip on all the different mixed plastics, & how much smarter it would be to just limit the production to a few not-so-healthwise-problematic ones (?) & stick to natural materials otherwise mostly?

as it is, I understand some consumers call for mixed plastics recycling..
in an ideal world, we'd all Bring Our Own, go as natural as possible, & make VERY LITTLE mixed plastics trash in the first place!!


Hi Layla, I know what you mean and if more and more people made the effort to reduce and if retailers took even faster steps to do the same, it would be easier. However, it will take a massive effort to get to that point. At least the good news is while WRAP is pushing the agenda on recycling, they are also pushing other initiatives through for reducing packaging too. It is a massive mountain to climb, but working side-by-side these strategies aim for positive change.

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