The BPFRG Films Working Group mainly consists of companies specialising in the sustainable recycling of plastic film arising from UK packaging and non-packaging waste streams.
Factory production plastic film waste and post-use plastic film and bags from commerce and industry have been successfully reprocessed in the UK for decades. However, in the past, contaminated plastic film waste, which could not be economically sorted for mechanical recycling, was generally landfilled or incinerated.
During the nineties, the EU Packaging Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste required that the member states should introduce measures to develop reuse systems. UK weight-based targets, which were regulated by DEFRA, then came into force. The UK's Producer Responsibility Regulations were introduced in response to this EU Directive and a new monitoring system was created. Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRNs) were given by accredited recycling companies to businesses as proof that their waste had been collected, or sold to compliance schemes, who bought them on behalf of obligated companies, as evidence of compliance under the regulations.
In order to reach the packaging waste targets Packaging Waste Export Recover Notes (PERNs) were also introduced, allowing exported packaging waste to count as part of the recycling targets. The revenue from the sale of PRNs and PERNs was directed towards accredited UK recyclers and exporters respectively.
During the 2000s, the government-funded Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) was created to assist governments and the reprocessing sector to meet recycling commitments. Following an EU Landfill Directive, The Landfill Regulations (England and Wales) set landfill diversion targets for each local authority (regulated by DEFRA) in an attempt to reduce biodegradable and recyclable household waste from being landfilled. The Household Waste Recycling Act (2003) required all local authorities in England to provide kerbside collections for at least two recyclables by 2010.
The EU Waste Framework Directive (dating back to 1975) was revised and required that high quality recycling should be encouraged and defined waste materials be kept separately. The concept of the waste hierarchy of waste prevention, reuse, recycling, energy recovery and disposal was born. EU-wide recycling targets were introduced, implemented by DEFRA in England and Wales, together with SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) in Scotland and NIEA (Northern Ireland Environment Agency) in Northern Ireland.
Currently over 1 million tonnes of plastic film from packaging arises in the UK waste stream. Around two thirds from households and one third from commerce, industry and agriculture.
There is also around 30,000 tonnes of UK non-packaging flexible plastic waste film from agriculture which is regulated by the NPAP (Non Packaging Agricultural Plastics). Around 20% of this non-packaging plastic film was estimated to be recycled in 2009.
UK plastic packaging waste recycling has grown considerably as a whole and achieved its Producer Responsibility recycling target in 2010. However this was largely due to plastic bottle recycling and plastic packaging films from commerce and industry. The exported plastic packaging films are generally composed of a limited number of polymer types (primary packaging films) and contamination levels and selected qualities that can be identified by buyer and seller alike. The major export market for this material is China, via Hong Kong.
In total contrast, the recycling of household plastic film packaging waste is minimal. This waste stream contains a mixture of polymer types, heavily printed, coextrusions, laminations, food contamination and biopolymers, which necessitates an extremely high level of sorting before it can be mechanically recycled in the UK or exported. China banned household flexible plastic packaging film in 2008.
English local authorities, in conjunction with waste management companies, collect source-separated and commingled packaging waste, which sometimes includes plastic films kerbside collections, household waste and front of store deposit sites.
Packaging waste is delivered to Municipal Recycling Facilities (MRFs). However, MRFs do not have automatic technology to sort plastic films and manual sorting costs are financially prohibitive. As a result, the majority of household plastic packaging film ends up in the residual waste stream, which is landfilled or incinerated.
Recently, a new "mixed plastics" household waste stream has been initiated. This waste stream includes all non-bottle plastic packaging; however so far policy-makers have been unable to agree as to whether plastic films should be included. English local council commingled collections are currently increasing due to perceived cost savings. However, lower collection costs have been shown to be more than offset by additional sorting costs at MRFs.
It is claimed that flexible plastic films can diminish the quality of other waste streams unless removed early in the separation process at an MRF. Trials have shown that after repeated manual sorting and using the latest reprocessing technology a marketable recyclate can be produced from household waste plastic film. However, around 50% of the plastic film waste used in these trials was only suitable for RFW (energy from waste) or SRF (solid recovered fuel). This brings into question the environmental performance of such a system before the development of further advanced technology designed to handle waste plastic films.
The issues surrounding the successful recycling of plastic film from UK waste streams and, particularly, the Household Waste Stream, need specialist recommendations due to the complexity of the material and the technological challenges discussed previously. There continues to be a great effort to resolve the difficulties in recycling plastic film from the household in order to follow the Waste Hierarchy policy of recycling before energy recovery.
Recently, Plastic Recycling Facilities (PERFs) have been set up to specialise in sorting plastic packaging, including flexible packaging films. There is also a new initiative to drop off selected labelled flexible plastic film and bags at front of store carrier bag banks. This system has proven successful in the USA. Other suggestions are for a separately "bagged" source-separated plastic film and plastic bag stream from UK household plastic packaging waste arisings.
However, the latest UK government regulations certainly initially appear not to have considered the "special needs" of sustainable waste plastic film recycling from UK households. DEFRA, under its transposition of the latest revised EU waste framework Directive, has confirmed that both source-separated and commingled collections will count towards separate collections of household plastic packaging waste in England and Wales after 2015. Commingled collection means a combination of waste paper, metal, plastic and glass will be counted in the same way as source-separated waste packaging single stream materials. The revised Waste Hierarchy is to be given legal effect and now lists prevention, preparation for re-use, recycling, other recovery (for example energy recovery) and disposal.
Producer responsibility recycling targets for flexible plastic films from the UK household waste stream have been proposed at a level of 250,000 tonnes by 2020. This new legislation coincides with the Coalition Government's aim to move towards zero landfill by using landfill tax as the key driver.
Industry concerns were raised that allowing commingled collections to count towards the goal was not consistent with the Directive's requirement to encourage high-quality recycling and keeping defined waste materials separately. The Campaign for Real Recycling (CRR) says it will seek a judicial review, over the inclusion of commingled collection systems, in the transposition of the revised Waste Framework Directive. The Scottish government is however proposing Zero Waste regulations and "maximising levels of high-quality recycling through separation and collection systems which keep materials clean and free from contamination".
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