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Updated RECOUP Report Reveals COVID-19 Impact on Recycling

As highlighted in RECOUP’s update of its UK Household Plastic Packaging Sorting and Reprocessing Infrastructure Report 2020  and Covid-19 Impact Report, previous challenges relating to capacity, investment and legislative changes are to be impacted further due to the global pandemic. 

The UK Household Plastic Packaging Sorting and Reprocessing Infrastructure Report 2020 provides context around the design of a new tax on the production and import of all plastic packaging that doesn’t include at least 30% recycled content.

The report highlights how the UK’s infrastructure to sort plastic packaging to the required quality and reprocess this material needs to increase in order to handle the additional demands created by both the recycled content target and also to service ambitious commitments by brand leaders to increase circular and environmentally sustainable manufacturing. However, with the impact of Covid-19, (outlined in RECOUP’s Covid-19 Impact Report), the UK’s plastic recycling infrastructure is challenged further.

Since the global pandemic caused widespread disruptions to UK businesses from March, this has caused a major drop in both oil and Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) prices, subsequently making virgin plastic more attractive and economically viable to packaging producers, driven changes in product and packaging demands, as well as creating logistical challenges such as staff shortages and site closures.

With HM Treasury continuing with plans to implement the Plastic Packaging Tax in April 2022, there is a level of urgency to understand the impact of this and how this recycled content target can be achieved.

RECOUP reports that sorting capacities at Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) and Plastic Recovery Facilities (PRFs), by volume at least, are not a barrier to meeting a 30% recycled content target. The UK has an estimated permitted MRF capacity of between 1.6 and 1.9 million tonnes for sorting plastic packaging, and an estimated actual throughput of up to 1,000,000 tonnes per year. Research found there are significant shortfalls in reprocessing capacity, with an estimated current operational output of 230,000 tonnes. There are also challenging commercial conditions and fine profit margins in this sector, with very specific operational and technical challenges around reprocessing plastic film, non-bottle PET and food-grade packaging.

Scenarios detailed in the report show the extent to which capacities may be unable to cope with specific changes and requirements. When comparing the reprocessing capacity against 30% recycled content from plastic packaging types placed on the market, there are significant shortfalls. These scenarios suggest that the UK’s reprocessing capacity may need to increase by 100% to meet 30% recycled content in all household plastic packaging placed on the market, and by over 200% to meet that target for food-grade rigid household plastic packaging.

Steve Morgan, Policy & Infrastructure Manager at RECOUP, said:

“The research conducted by RECOUP in producing the Infrastructure Report highlights the need for the UK to shift towards more domestic recycling in the UK, in order for the industry to be able to cope with the increasing demands for high-quality recycled plastic.

“To deliver the infrastructure to meet a recycled content target, reforming the UK Packaging Producer Responsibility System is essential in order to provide the underpinning foundations and ensure the necessary investment and confidence are in place to help the UK deliver a sustainable business model to build and maintain the required recycling infrastructure for plastic packaging.”

The UK Household Plastic Packaging Sorting and Reprocessing Infrastructure Report 2020  is available for free at www.recoup.org. The Covid-19 Impact Report is available to RECOUP members only. For information on RECOUP membership, please contact rebecca.davis@recoup.org.

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