Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Extending Plastics Recycling (a bit)

The news that Bristol is at last launching a trial kerbside collection of mixed plastics (details here)is very welcome; until now, they've always claimed it's uneconomic.

The trial rounds don't include us here in Stockwood, though (map here).

The innovation here is that our only Stockwood public recycling point, behind the Co-op, will in future take not just the PET drinks bottles, but most plastic containers and jars.

What many of us regret is that the plastic film that makes up so much rubbish still isn't included.

One good sign comes from the Halifax-based wholefood co-operative SUMA, who have started to package much of their own brand produce in a new PET based 'soft' packaging, itself made from recycled PET. [SUMA's Bristol outlets include Earthbound, in Cotham; I see they're doing a home delivery service too, now - presumably the same run that includes Earthbound! But lets hope that SUMA's Fishponds-based equivalent, Essential Trading, takes up the same packaging initiative]

The new material, known as rPET, is claimed to be every bit as recyclable as PET bottles, and can be stuffed inside PET bottles when they go in the recycling bank. The problem seems to be that the technology is ok, but recyclers aren't yet ready to accept anything that even resembles the other packaging films that enter the waste stream.

Cue an email to Exec member Gary Hopkins, if he can spare a moment from pre-election pounding the streets of Knowle.


GeaVox said...

Hello Pete,

I wanted to comment on the curb collection of plastics for recycling, with some 'caveates'.

Some years ago I worked as a waste broker for a waste management company that - amongst other things - sourced waste recycling contractors for a broad range of customers.

As an Environmental Management graduate, with decades of commitment to environmental sustainability, I tried to promote recycling as a first-order option to customers.

Lamentably, I found was that:

1) the statutory instrument introduced in the UK to implement the Council Directive on packaging and packaging waste [94/62/EC of 1994], used that now infamous "light [regulatory] touch" that effectively shirked legislative responsibility by applying 'market forces'.

The introduction of [Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRNs) and Packaging Waste Export Recovery Notes (PERNs)] created a complex trading system that makes it possible for waste producers to simply pass on the cost of their waste to the consumer and the environment, without affecting company or shareholders' profits, and so failing utterly to modify corporate behaviours.

2) a major obstacle to recycling packaging wastes is contamination. This can be anything, from labels to substances, even mud or grit. Plastics remanufacturers are few and far between; their operations managers made it clear they wanted:
a) 'known materials' (e.g. what type of plastic)
b) 'clean' and with no stickers, labels, tape or staples; nor soiled with food, dust or other contaminants
c) 'sorted and baled', that is compressed into easily handled bales of identical plastics.

This meant, though it was relatively easy to find Waste Management Companies that offered "recycling collection"- for which they charged a high schedule of fees - and that did not care how these were packaged, when I carried out inspections of their premises and environmental audits, it emerged that they all simply took the plastic wastes to landfill.

I contacted the DTI by email, to enquire as to what sanctions would be applied to 'Recyclers' who scammed customers and the public like this; their response was - I summarise from memory:

"Commingled plastics sorting requires expensive spectroscopic analysis equipment that would make most recycling operations uneconomic. We are not in the business of placing obstacles in the path of British industry, and so leave the regulation of the plastics recyclate markets to the experts: the remanufacturers and waste management companies. The value of the recyclate will be determined by the scarcity or abundance of the virgin raw materials."

In other words: when oil starts to run out and there are no alternatives, the industry will self-regulate and scramble for recyclate (probably by digging-up ancient, rotting landfills, in what is euphemistically termed "landfill mining").

What is sinister is that, years ago in Sheffield, there was an early plastics collection scheme - I found out about it from the DTI's own Warren Springs Laboratory - and they operated exactly the same scam! - At University I met a colleague who was a driver on one of the trucks that took the plastic to landfill! -.

How has all that changed?
Should we now believe that the plastics recyclate markets have been "greened" to the point that they invested in some kind of mass spectrometers and automatic sorting conveyor belt systems?
What guarantee do we have that this new initiative will not perpetrate the same, old scam?

Many thanks for your kind attention.


Pete Goodwin said...

Many thanks for that, Gea. Rather than leave it tucked away as a link from that blogpost, I've reprinted it as an integral part of another one, so more people will get to see it.