UK - New research signals the way for household plastics to be recycled


In the UK, new research from WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) reveals that recycling household plastics can be cost-effective as well as environmentally friendly.

The UK produces around 1.4m tonnes of mixed plastic packaging waste every year – including yoghurt pots, salad bags and ready-meal trays - and this figure is growing by 2-5% every year. Although it makes up only 9% of household weight by waste, its volume means that it stands out in the average person’s bin.

WRAP undertook the research to see if it made financial sense to recycle this waste and, if recycling it would be better for the environment than other options – such as burning it or sending it to landfill. In particular, WRAP wanted to see if these ordinary household items could be recycled to make new ones, rather than having to use virgin plastics every time. There is currently a ‘Catch 22’ situation - with few local authorities prepared to collect plastic waste other than bottles, as there is limited potential for them to be recycled. However, this means there is a lack of such plastics available for companies to attempt to do so.

The WRAP research included trials of sorting different types of plastics, an analysis of the type of technology needed, an estimate of running-costs, and modelling of the financial rate of return. It also compared the environmental impacts of different ways of dealing with this type of plastic waste, including burning it and sending it to landfill. The research showed that, in addition to the environmental benefits, recycling can be cheaper than both these options.

Overall, landfill is the least favourable option for disposing of plastics waste. However, in terms of global warming potential, the research found that incineration of plastic packaging was the worst option. This is because more CO2 is emitted by burning plastics than by burning gas or coal to generate the same amount of energy.

The research showed that, on balance, the best environmental option is to invest in technology to produce high-quality recycled plastics - but there will still be a need for solid recovered fuel (SRF) in some cases. Consequently, it makes sense to build integrated plants capable of both options, as this improves the economic benefit and maximises the environmental impact.

Unveiling the research for the first time at a high-level conference of industry professionals, Liz Goodwin, CEO WRAP, said - “This is the first time that we have been able to prove that recycling mixed plastics is not only possible, but cost-effective and makes good environmental sense. The amount of plastic packaging we see in our bins is frustrating, as there is currently nothing most of us can do about it.

"However, this new research is a first step towards getting that plastic out of the household bin and back in use. This will reduce the need for us to use large amounts of energy producing new plastics and the oil required in their content.”