A quarter of a century of agonising over the disposal of domestic plastics packaging waste has been marked by lack of resolution on the part of local authorities and a cacophony of advice from different interests. Statutory European targets for waste recovery have been applied, but without a clear plan for implementation or even a prospect of economic viability. As different vested interests vie with one another, it is becoming increasingly clear that the targets are unlikely to be met except at great cost and effort, which might be better spent on more important issues.
The September 1997 issue of Materials World published an account of a submission by the loM Packaging Committee to the House of Commons Environment Committee for its deliberations on waste management. It was not clear whether those views had any impact.
The Packaging Field
The whole field has become much too complex to be covered by any one article, but elaboration of all aspects of the subject will be found in “A way with waste” (214 pages in two parts, published by the DETR in June 1999). This should be required reading for anyone interested in the subject. However, so should the documents produced by industry bodies such as the British Plastics Federation (BPF) and Industry Committee for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN).
Sustainability and Packaging
“A way with waste” states, ‘Sustainable waste management ... is an achievable goal - if we all play our part and do our bit to reduce, re-use, recycle.’ Much has been made of the notion that everything we do should be ‘sustainable’, implying that much of what we currently do is unsustainable in some way. In the packaging field there is hardly likely ever to be a shortage of raw materials (using, as it does, so small a proportion of the total), even the non-renewable ones, yet crisis management is being invoked in the absence of a crisis. The idea is being promoted that packaging is itself wasteful and that there is too much overpackaging.
Packaging and Waste
Take, for example, the September 1998 issue of House and Garden - ‘Bete noire - Packaging. Why is it that every time you buy vegetables, pastries or any individually presented article in the supermarket, you find yourself throwing away a whole bin-load of unnecessary plastic....’ Or, Auberon Waugh in his Daily Telegraph column of 3 July 1999 – ‘The packaging revolution is something which is seldom discussed or written about but one which affects every one of us every day ... The packagers produce so much unnecessary packaging that it threatens to overwhelm the whole country.... increasing mountains of household rubbish ... now threaten a crisis of disposal, according to Michael Meacher, the minister .... The simplest solution ... is to impose a tax on packaging.’
Packaging Reducing Waste
More refreshingly, “A way with waste” states, ‘Packaging reduces product wastage and saves resources between the point of production and final consumption.’ Such facts need emphasising to a public for whom the benefits of certain features of a pack may not be immediately apparent. One could add that supermarket shopping would hardly be possible without modem packaging.
Recovery and Recycling of Packaging
The document goes on to say, ‘However, recovery and recycling of packaging waste can contribute to the Government’s commitment to sustainable development and tough climate change targets, e.g. by reducing biodegradable packaging going to landfill; reducing methane emissions, achieving energy savings; limiting the depletion of natural resources and decreasing other environmental impacts.’ This must be so, but to such a small extent that it can surely hardly justify the size of the effort being urged on all and sundry.
“A way with waste” contains a great deal of exhortation to reduce waste, and a key proposal is to reduce the amount of packaging in the first place. INCPEN, which does a valuable service to the community in bringing contentious packaging issues into focus, organised a conference last September on a draft Code of Practice for responsible packaging, the origin of which was the allegation of prevalent overpackaging. A speaker who quoted examples of alleged overpackaging had been able to find surprisingly few. I believe that potential reduction in total waste from eliminating overpackaging, assuming it could defined unequivocally, is far too small to be subject to the efforts being diverted to it.
Market Forces Reducing Overpackaging
The DETR documents seem to show that representation from the packaging industry itself has been minimal, which is perhaps why the normal operation of the customer-supplier relationship is overlooked. In fact, market forces have worked to reduce waste - throughout the years of growth of plastics packaging, with a continual drive to reduce the cost of packs, because margins have been low, Because of this continuous process, exhortations and codes of practice aimed at the elimination of overpackaging and excessive use of materials are largely a waste of time.
Options for Waste Management
With regard to the range of options for waste management, “A way with waste” states, ‘In order to achieve the vision set out in Part 1, the efforts of all stakeholders - government, regulators, waste producers and waste reprocessors - will need to be concentrated on more sustainable waste management solutions, namely: waste reduction, re-use, recycling composting and energy recovery.’ ‘Sustainable’ here merely means ‘as unwasteful as possible’, and excludes dumping and burning without energy recovery. Later in the document, it says, ‘...and need to recognise the various parts played by other stake holders so that our energy and efforts do not cut across the efforts of others who seek to achieve on common goal of sustainability’. I am not happy about this because it seems to encourage a free-for-all approach when leadership is required. Never the less, in the absence of leadership, market forces will certainly sort out the problem in the long run.
Methods for Minimisation of Post-Consumer Waste
Methods available for minimisation of post-consumer plastics waste (PCW) are listed in the table 1. In a short article it is not possible to elaborate on the less appropriate methods, so I merely mention exporting waste (not an entirely dismissable option), burning in the open, dumping, and also trying to increase the re-use of packs, which would make little difference to the total figures. Any method that destroys material for no gain is no solution for the future. Chemical recycling, which is mainly reducing mixed polymer to monomers and fractionating, has some potential.
Table 1. Waste management options.
• Export to other countries
• Without any treatment
• Composting of degradable plastics waste
• Burning in the open without precautions
• Burning with elimination of toxic emissions, but without utilising the heat produced
• Burning to produce useable energy – viz electricity generation
The ideas that ‘plastics last for ever’ and ‘composting is a good thing’ have given rise to the notion that plastics should be made compostable. Composting removes putrefiable matter from organic waste, so that the plant nutrients and vegetable fibre are left as useful humus. The process can produce methane for fuel under controlled and confined conditions, but composting plastics should itself be regarded as wasteful.
Over the past 25 years companies have developed entirely biological, that is, renewable, plastics, but it has recently been shown that these hardly conserve resources. The other approach is to induce more rapid degradation in common plastics such as polyethylene. Companies such as Symphony and others have promoted polymers treated in this way as ‘green’ materials, but it is noteworthy that for at least seven or so years, Friends of the Earth has not endorsed them for the reason that they are difficult to reconcile with recycling. induced biodegradeability has some application in areas such as agricultural mulching films and controlled release fertiliser capsules. However, a case can be made out for banning their use for products that are liable to enter a waste stream destined for recycling. Any beneficial effect on waste management will be negligible.
Recycling and Reprocessing of Packaging
Recycling or reprocessing is currently preferred because of legislative targets and the opportunities for new businesses, and because it has captured the imagination of a section of the public. Sheila McKinley, head of the DETR Packaging Unit, exhorted that recycling must rise 300% at a recent Recoup conference - i.e. in order to meet the targets.
Viability of Recycling
However, in the face of difficult economics and very variable markets, viability problems have become only too obvious. A report from the Market Development Group sponsored by the DETR, examining the ways in which the markets for recycled goods and materials could be expanded, makes bleak reading, since all that can be proposed is a great deal more effort. Recycling of PET has been relatively successful, but this should not obscure the fact that most plastics recycling has to be subsidised. The fluctuating market position is the key factor that makes theoretical returns hard to realise. In October 1998 the recycling company Reprise put its suppliers on hold, due to the Asian economic crisis and world over-capacity. In April this year, Plastics and Rubber Weekly ran the headline, ‘Waste target gap threatens to grow’, reporting the failure of PCW recycler Transform Plastics. John Webb-Jenkins of the Institute of Packaging was quoted as saying ‘The whole system seems to be in disarray ... the time scale is incredibly short’, - that is, for the UK to meet European commitments.
Incineration as an Alternative to Recycling
Incineration with energy recovery, or ‘energy from waste’ (EFW) is discussed in “A way with waste” as another of the options. It is the one favoured most by the industry and least by the public. With the big drive towards recycling, the authorities have naturally shied away from promoting EFW, yet it has advantages. This is a field where plastics, paper and board can be combined, and the necessary separation procedures are much simpler than those for recycling. Added to which, there is no marketing problem.
Viability of Packaging Incinerators
There are concerns over toxic emissions, but account needs to be taken of the efficiency of modern incineration plant. Efficient, minimum-emission power plant capable of burning mixed waste is available and already being used in some areas, such as Tyseley in Birmingham. It is inevitable that more and more EFW installations will be built because there will always be a combustible residue requiring disposal. Capacity will have to be planned for future needs, and economics will favour larger installations and higher loading once built, so that the authorities concerned are likely to stop subsidising recycling at some stage and actually charge companies to abstract materials from the waste stream.
If this analysis is correct, then by virtue of normal and logical progress, most of the effort to find markets for various recyclates will become redundant, so that the only reason for pressing ahead in the short term will be the drive to meet the statutory recycling targets ‑ perhaps a forlorn quest anyway. Recycling targets result in an unnecessary cost to the whole population, and are a bar to rapid progress, since recycling investment will tend to delay power plant investment. It is, however, inevitable that these natural developments will eventually solve the problems long before there is any significant effect on the planet’s hydrocarbon resources from an industry that uses such a small proportion of them.