Plastics Market Situation Report 2019

15th October 2019

This update looks at the key developments since 2016, including trends in plastic collections and recycling; risks and opportunities in the main end markets for the UK's recovered plastics; trends in recovered plastic prices; and policy and legislative issues.

Key findings
The closure of export markets has led to a greater need to recycle more in the UK
More focus is needed to develop sustainable end markets for recycled plastics
UK domestic plastic recycling needs to increase to meet targets

The Plastics Market Situation Report is part of WRAP’s series of reports that provides in-depth information on the latest economic, market and regulatory trends affecting the capture and recycling of recovered plastics.

Better information about markets for recovered plastics could help local authorities’ make decisions about their plastics collection schemes and help them communicate with residents about where their recycling goes. It might also help businesses – those already active in the sector or those looking to enter the sector – and their financiers identify market opportunities and assess risks.  

Key themes to emerge from this 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 (the process of reducing the overall weight of plastic packaging) thought to have countered rising consumption. Non-packaging plastic arisings is estimated to be 2.5Mt, primarily from the construction sector.

Plastics collections: The amount of plastic packaging collected by UK local authorities is estimated to have increased by 10% since 2013/14 to 550kt. Nearly all local authorities collect plastic bottles, with around four out of five collecting at least some types of pots, tubs and trays (PTTs). Around 17% of local authorities 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. 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 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 South East 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. 

UK Plastics Pact: In April 2018, WRAP launched the UK Plastics Pact, a world-leading initiative 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. In order to meet higher recycling targets, there are likely to be opportunities to increase the amount of recycled plastic used by the automotive, electrical and construction sectors. 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 carbon benefits of recycling plastic compared with using virgin plastic are well known and quantifiable. Plastic waste in the environment is much more visible, yet its impact is much harder to quantify. As our understanding of the issue increases, the impact that plastic waste has on the environment could be greater than was previously known. The impact that the mismanagement of plastic waste is having on the world’s oceans and habitats is now a central issue of public concern.

Policy changes supporting positive change: In the UK, the EU, and further afield, governments are consulting on policies that could enable the improved supply of quality recovered plastics and demand-pull mechanisms that, up until recently, have largely been absent. In the UK, these include Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging, Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) and consistent municipal recycling collections (set to be introduced from 2023), and a tax on plastics packaging with low levels of recycled content (scheduled for April 2022).