RECOUP: UK Reprocessing Capacity Needs to Double to Meet Plastic Packaging Tax Demands

The UK could be set to face significant challenges in its ability to recycle household plastic packaging, with reprocessing infrastructure potentially needing to double, according to new research by RECOUP.

RECOUP has released an update of its Household Plastic Packaging Sorting and Infrastructure Report, which aims to inform and provide 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.

With Her Majesty’s Treasury set to implement the Plastic Packaging Tax, which is currently in its second round of consultations, in April 2022, there is a level of urgency to understand the impact of this and how this recycled content target can be achieved.

Currently, RECOUP report that sorting capacities at Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) and Plastic Recovery Facilities (PRFs), by volume at least, is not a barrier to meeting a 30% recycled content target. The UK has an estimated annual 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.

However, research found there are significant shortfalls in reprocessing capacity, with an estimated current operational output of 230,000 tonnes. There are also particularly 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. Reforming and delivering a well-designed Packaging Producer Responsibility System in the UK is essential to deliver the infrastructure to meet a recycled content target. This would provide the underpinning foundations to ensure the necessary investment and confidence are in place for a sustainable business model to build and maintain the required recycling infrastructure for plastic packaging.”

The 2020 RECOUP Household Plastic Packaging Sorting and Infrastructure Report is available to all RECOUP members through the RECOUP website.

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