Amidst growing calls for policy makers to help ensure a green recovery from the impacts of the coronavirus crisis, the plastic recycling challenge is an area that needs urgent attention.
In the UK, three billion plastic bottles are thrown away, littered or never recycled every year. Government, local authorities and the industry – from manufacturer to retailer, collector to processor – must work together to find long term solutions to this issue. We need effective and economically viable ways to increase recycling quality and capture rates.
But as Defra considers England’s future waste & recycling strategy, its current plans to roll out a deposit return scheme (DRS) in the UK are concerning. Local authorities do not support a DRS; as the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) has previously made clear, 'a DRS may not deliver the gains required to make it viable', and should at least be deferred until after policies on extended producer responsibility and consistency have had a chance to work.
Previous analysis from the Institute of Economic Affairs predicts that the DRS will cost almost £1bn to set up, with annual running costs of £814m. It suggests that the vast majority of containers intended to be collected through the DRS are already being recycled through kerbside collections. In addition, a DRS would mean local authorities losing out on the revenue they make from kerbside collections of plastic bottles.
As we highlight in a new report based on findings from Greenredeem’s year-long recycling pilot, instead of focusing a DRS, we urgently need Government to invest in long term solutions that link recycling with education and good causes. The recycling model we trialled can provide greater impact, while supporting kerbside recycling collections, benefiting local authorities and reducing the costs of a DRS.
We installed interactive recycling kiosks – supported by educational activity – across 25 primary and secondary schools in Windsor and Maidenhead. Pupils could scan and deposit plastic drinks bottles while engaging with videos, images and lesson plans about recycling and the environment. Every bottle deposited earned 5 pence for the school, to be spent on further educational initiatives.
Nearly 160,000 plastic bottles were recycled, and as part of the closed loop process, collections were made each week to use the recycled PET to create new bottles. We also surveyed more than 2,000 members of the wider school community, finding that awareness of the impact of plastic pollution grew, as did recycling of all plastic bottles when not home.
The educational initiatives through this model ensured a deeper connection to the cause, helping recycling behaviours to become sustained. Although Greenredeem used recycling kiosks to provide a focal point and conduit for recycling, we concluded that our model could be rolled out in other ways across the UK – including through an app – to ensure the cost-effective capture of plastic bottles, while driving long term behaviour change.
The flexible model we piloted provides a readily available and scalable solution which benefits everyone involved. We are calling for Defra to implement this kind of model, to sit alongside other strategies – such as extended producer responsibility. The revenue from extended producer responsibility could then be used to fund lasting, educational recycling solutions.
If Government invests in these kinds of long-term approaches, we can improve recycling quality and capture rates, reduce littering and contribute to a circular economy – while ensuring that local authorities don’t lose out.
Matthew Ball is managing director of Greenredeem