Single-use plastics tax: Tony Gaukroger, Director, Colour Tone Masterbatch asks where is the 30% recycled plastics coming from?
The new tax on the manufacturing and import of plastics packaging that contains less than 30% recycled plastics comes into force on the 1st April 2022. It is a measure that the government believes will ‘transform the economies of sustainable packaging.’
Currently, 2.26 million tonnes of plastics packaging is used in the UK each year, with the vast majority of this being made from new plastics rather than recycled materials.
As a pioneer in the development of a revolutionary near-infrared colourant (NIR) technology, Infra-Tone that aids the detection of historically difficult to sort black and coloured plastics packaging, Colour Tone supports this new tax.
It is clearly a step in the right direction by encouraging manufacturers to develop eco-friendly packaging solutions, but serious thought must now be given as to where the 30% recycled plastics is coming from?
This question is reflected in a recent comment from the Director General of the British Plastics Federation (BPF), Phillip Law, ‘the plastics industry shares the government’s ambition of being a good steward of the environment for future generations, but getting that right needs to involve manufacturers, retailers and the public at large.’
He also promised to ‘urge caution on requiring a specific level of recycled content in packaging products as we must ensure that the UK has the recycling infrastructure to meet demand.’
This means investing in our recycling facilities to do more of this at home and not relying on the exporting of plastics waste abroad. Particularly since this waste is being sent away largely in the hope, rather than the expectation that it is being recycled to countries with poor processing and insufficient waste reporting methods.
The focus is now on producers to solve the problem of recyclability, but the government has failed to recognise the inadequacies in the recycling infrastructure itself. There is little benefit in increasing recyclable packaging content unless we are ensuring at the same time that this is being processed.
Penalising plastics packaging producers
This leads us on to a key question, is it fair to penalise plastics packaging producers if they cannot deliver the 30% recycled content?
According to BPF figures, the UK’s recycling rate for plastic packaging is currently 46%, but we are making a fundamental error if we are to assume that 100% of this recycled material will be available to use in new packaging items as the government intends.
Since not all of this recycled material will either be suitable quality or available in the required polymer types to enable producers to use it in new packaging, particularly when it comes to satisfying stringent food-grade packaging requirements.
Producers are in fact being set up to fail by trying to achieve this target – as the amount of packaging produced increases each year, but the actual tonnage available for re-use is only a smaller fraction of the previous year’s usage.
So how can we ensure there is sufficiently volume of high quality recycled feedstock available to prevent demand outstripping supply?
Designing for end-of-life
This can only be achieve by overcoming two major challenges: – designing packaging for ‘end-of-life’ recycling and introducing a consistent approach towards the separation of mixed post-consumer waste to maximise our recycling potential and minimise landfill.
The near-infrared (NIR) spectrography used by materials recovery facilities (MRFs & PRFs), offers a fast method of sorting mixed plastics waste by polymer type. The major limitation with this process however, is that plastic is coloured and the colourant in the packaging can depending on pigment choice strongly absorb, rather than reflects NIR, so the sorter is unable to identify the ‘signature’ from the spectrophotometer.
Colour Tone has helped to pioneer a novel colourant technology Infra-Tone that is increasingly being adopted by responsible packaging producers, it is able to reflect radiation to optical sorters used by recyclers so it makes coloured and black plastic items ‘visible’ for detection.
But if we want to capitalise on this technology, we need to ensure there are sufficient NIR sorting methods available in the UK’s MRFs and PRFs to recycle these plastics, this isn’t possible without further investment.
If we are to effectively ‘close-the-loop’ on plastics packaging, we need to better support the entire supply chain to meet the challenges of economically processing mixed plastics from product designers to recyclers – otherwise this new tax is simply setting up producers to fail.