'Where does our plastic go?' The Times journalist Ben Cooke set out to answer this enduring question recently, and visited our plastics recycling facility in Dagenham to find out more about our closed-loop recycling process.
Dagenham is where our 'bottle to bottle' recycling process takes place. Bales of plastic milk bottles arrive at the facility, where they are then sorted, shredded and turned into pellets. These pellets are then sent onto another facility ready to be made into new bottles, with the entire process able to take place in under two weeks.
How sustainable is this process?
This recycling process aligns with the circular economy model, which is crucial to reducing carbon emissions, by reusing materials and reducing the use of virgin resources. The British Plastics Federation (BPF) estimates that in 2020, 750 kilotonnes of plastic was sent to plastic recycling facilities such as this one in Dagenham. Tim Duret, Director of Sustainable Technology at Veolia UK, explains, "A more sustainable approach to plastic milk bottles was discussed by the dairy industry about 15 years ago. The industry came together and said, 'We want these milk bottles to come back as milk bottles. How do we do that?'"
However, the plastic that is disposed of in this way only accounts for around a sixth of the plastic waste thrown away in the UK each year, so everyone has a part to play in ensuring more of our used plastics reach sustainable destinations. As Tim Duret explains, "Each time you recycle you use a bit of energy. But compared to making new plastics out of fossil fuels [it's] about 70 per cent less".
Find out more about our Dagenham facility:
What does the future look like?
To encourage a more sustainable future for plastics, the UK Government has set out ambitions to recycle far more of our waste domestically. It aims to increase the recycling rate to 62 per cent by 2030, from 43.8 per cent last year. To achieve this ambition, more support is needed for the UK's plastics recycling infrastructure. This support will partially come in the form of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which will require packaging producers to pay the full cost of recycling the packaging they produce. The revenue this generates will go to local authorities that collect plastic waste and companies that process this waste, with the scheme due to be rolled out from 2024. In addition to the Plastic Packaging Tax and Deposit Return Scheme, EPR represents part of the Government's Resources and Waste Strategy, which is designed to help us preserve resources and move towards a more circular economy.
Incentivising companies to increase their use of recycled plastics will be crucial to creating real change. As Tim Duret explains, "If we want to recycle more, we need companies to be incentivised to make recycled material into new items. Otherwise, we can build as many recycling plants as we want, but if there's no end market, what's the point?"
Source: The Times