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Last updated: 06.12.18

The War on Plastics: Is our Recycling Infrastructure The Real Problem?

Earlier this year, the UK government received the Foresight Future of the Sea Report, which predicted the amount of plastic in the ocean could triple within a decade if more isn’t done to address the problem of plastic waste.

Understanding and addressing the environmental impact of plastics is therefore essential to ensuring retailers are able to get a handle on this problem themselves, with thousands of tons of plastic packaging waste being produced across the UK every year.

In response, recycling is a major initiative being undertaken by many organisations, but is the infrastructure that supports this process really suitable to offset the massive environmental strain that widespread use of plastics is producing?

How much can we really recycle?

Figures collated by British resource recovery company Axion Group have stated that each year, the UK produces approximately 414,000 metric tons of plastic-based flexible packaging - making up 27 per cent of all consumer plastic packaging.

However, much of these plastics that are being sent for recycling are now ending up in landfill, as a major investment in facilities to actually manage this volume of plastic waste has not yet been provided.

Axion head of circular economy, Richard McKinlay stated: "The big problem is the lack of adequate facilities designed to process these largely-recyclable materials.

"If we are to increase the UK's stalling recycling rate and hit future targets, the recycling of flexible packaging offers potential economic and environmental benefits. We know that flexible packaging that has been designed for end-of-life can be recycled, so we need the facilities in place to do it."

Investment in new facilities to manage and recycle this waste is therefore needed from the government, with Axion suggesting that around £100 million in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure would be needed to make the more sustainable use of flexible plastics a reality in the UK.

Plastic packaging a major concern

This is not a responsibility that simply falls on central government, however. Retailers across the country must also begin to find ways to more effectively reduce the amount of plastic packaging that is being used within their products.

Overall, the latest official figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show the total volume of plastic packaging waste in the UK stands at just over 2.2 million metric tons per annum.

Of this figure, 1.01 million metric tons of material are suitable to be recycled, meaning an overall recovery rate of just 44.9 per cent - this highlights the need for forthright action by industry in partnership with the authorities to make higher levels of material recovery possible.

Indeed, a recent YouGov survey of 2,000 UK members of the public revealed how almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of respondents stated their number one concern as a consumer over the next decade is the need to reduce plastic packaging and for manufacturers to switch to the use of more recyclable materials.

Ultimately, retailers must take on board the concerns of their customers, but the real reason to take action should be a driving need to protect our fragile world. This can only be achieved, however, if the government is willing to develop the infrastructure needed to make this work.

Virtual College can support organisations to create learning and development strategies that can help instil best practices and raise awareness of plastics and sustainability issues across a business. Contact us today to find out more.

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