Updated report brings clarity to market situation for UK recovered plastics

15th October 2019

The latest data and in-depth information about UK plastics recycling and reprocessing is published today by WRAP in an updated Plastics Market Situation Report (last updated in 2016).

Aimed at local authorities and businesses working in the recycling and reprocessing sector, the report provides an update on key developments over the past few years and highlights challenges and opportunities into the next decade.

Peter Maddox, Director of WRAP UK, said: “This report highlights the positive steps being taken to improve the recycling and reprocessing of UK plastics, as well as the stark challenges that lie ahead. We’re collecting more plastics for recycling, and demand for recycled content has increased as businesses respond to the concerns of citizens who are rightly demanding more sustainable packaging.

“This poses a capacity challenge and it is imperative that we support the development of new reprocessing infrastructure in the UK. Through The UK Plastics Pact we are working hard with the plastics supply chain to address this. The targets are a strong driver of change to increase the recycling of plastic packaging, and to create more sustainable end markets.

“This report will help local authorities and businesses make investment and communications decisions based on robust market information, including recovered and virgin plastic prices, recovered plastic flows, the sustainability of end markets, UK recycling capacity and future risks and opportunities.”

Key themes to emerge from the report are:

Plastic arising: Latest estimates indicate that around 2.4Mt of plastic packaging was placed on the UK market (POM) in 2017. Over the past decade the amount of plastic packaging POM is thought to have been broadly stable, with light-weighting thought to have countered rising consumption.

Plastics collections: The amount of plastic packaging collected by UK Local Authorities (LAs) is estimated to have increased by 10% since 2013/14 to 550kt. Nearly all LAs collect plastic bottles with around four out of five collecting at least some types of pots, tubs and trays (PTTs). Finally, around 17% of LAs accept empty carrier bags in 2017, with 10% accepting all types of plastic film.

UK domestic plastic recycling needs to increase to meet targets: Greater competition for recycled plastic and the loss of traditional export markets mean that domestic recycling must increase in order to meet stretching targets. Nevertheless, investment in increased plastics recycling infrastructure must be able to weather economic volatility and be adaptable to changes in market need.

Export markets close the door on poor quality plastic: In mid-2017 China announced that it would ban or heavily restrict the import of plastics and other materials from the start of 2018. Other export markets, especially in SE Asia, have followed China’s lead. This had a significant impact on the price of those polymers most exposed to the export market, in particular film and pots, tubs and trays (PTTs).

The UK Plastics Pact: In April 2018 WRAP launched The UK Plastics Pact, a world-leading initiative, which is blazing a trail for similar Pacts across the globe in support of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy. The targets are a strong driver of change through which to increase the recycling of plastic packaging and to create more sustainable end markets for plastic packaging.

Increased demand for recycled content: Demand for recycled content in plastic packaging has increased as brands pledge to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging, particularly through The UK Plastics Pact. Competition for recycled content across packaging and non-packaging applications is likely to increase.

A global challenge: Global plastic consumption is likely to continue to grow as emerging economies develop. Ensuring that all countries have the necessary waste management infrastructure will be central to ensuring that plastic waste does not end up in the environment. The launch of the Plastics Pact in the UK was rapidly followed by France, the Netherlands and Chile.

Greater awareness of the environmental impact of mismanaged waste plastic: The impact that the mismanagement of plastic waste is having on the world’s oceans and habitats is now an issue of huge public concern.

Policy changes supporting positive change: Both in the UK, the EU and further afield, governments are consulting on policies that could enable both improved supply of quality recovered plastics but also demand-pull mechanisms that, up until recently, have largely been absent.

WRAP’s Market Situation Reports are based on analysis undertaken by WRAP’s economist. It draws together intelligence from internal and published WRAP research, data and insight from market contacts and secondary data sources.

WRAP is a not for profit organisation founded in 2000 which works with governments, businesses and citizens to create a world in which we source and use resources sustainably. Our impact spans the entire life-cycle of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the products we buy, from production to consumption and beyond.