The truth about recycling plastic

Filed in Blog by on February 6, 2012 15 Comments
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comm-potocnikDo you remember at the end of last year I was invited to speak to about waste and sustainability with Commissioner Potočnik?

Well it kinda went wrong.

Being green by name and green by nature, I turned down the opportunity to go to London and said I would meet via teleconference.

This meant it could be a virtually zero emissions meeting for me which helps keep my carbon footprint to a minimum.

Everything was set up, I logged on, met up with everyone BUT I could only see the tops of two bottles of water and half a human head. I couldn’t hear anything and it was exceptionally stressful.

We logged out and back in again and the same happened so I had to drop the call.

So much for modern technology.

However, the PR company I worked with went out of their way to bring a happy ending my way and ensured my questions were answered by the Commissioner. Here’s how the conversation went:

MOI (in my usually waffly style):

As a family we’ve discovered one of the keys to our success is making conscious decisions BEFORE we buy anything. We ask ourselves what we are going to do with the packaging or product after we’ve finished using it. If we don’t ask ourselves this important question we end up with items at home we are unable to recycle and these are the things that end up in our landfill bin. Everything in our bin is composite material, film or unmarked plastic.

We make a strong commitment to reducing our landfill waste but appreciate we are in the minority. Our research shows that we need to make efficient use of waste materials simple and efficient for householders so they feel empowered to take part. Clearly our current system does not work so we think our current way of thinking needs to go back one step further.

From what we observe, there is too much freedom in the current market – manufacturers are allowed to make composite materials, they can use number 7 plastics which are not recyclable, they are allowed to make disposable items, issue goods with built in obsolescence or non serviceable parts and issue us with ‘free’ plastic bags.

What we would like to see is woolly ‘guidelines’ and voluntary practises turned into enforced legislation. To us it seems a pretty simple resolution based on a four part system:

1- Manufacturers are only allowed to produce certain types of packaging material.
2- These materials have to be clearly labelled
3- Each district has to provide full recycling facilities for all of these materials.
4- Finally we should have local re-processors in place who understand that our ‘rubbish’ is a resource and they should have the means to turn this waste stream into useful and valuable products; thus closing the loop.

We’d like to ask the following two questions based on our experience above:

1- How can we incentivise the recovery of plastic packaging? Currently local authorities are more of less excluding it form their recovery waste stream. They may take plastic bottles number 1 and 2 but most authorities take little else in terms of plastic.

2- Why are manufacturers allowed to produce plastic packaging which has absolutely no identification on it? This has been a tremendous challenge for us on our own journey to zero waste.


The average recovery rates for plastic waste in the EU are unacceptably low. Almost 50 % of plastic waste goes to landfill. In the EU 27, slightly less than half of all plastic waste was landfilled in 2008,while slightly more than half went to recovery, only 20 % of which was recycled. The projection to 2015 assumes an overall 30 % increase in the level of mechanical recycling, but that leaves landfilling and incineration with energy recovery predominant. Since plastic has a high calorific value and is a material which has undergone a complex chemical process, landfilling should be avoided in favour of recycling. Where recycling is not the most favourable option from a life cycle perspective, the preference should go to energy recovery.

Recovery includes both recycling and energy recovery. Here there are huge differences between Member States, even under the present legislation. In the more advanced ones only between 5 % and 15 % of plastics go to landfill, whereas the others have landfill rates for plastic of between 65% and 95 %. This is an unacceptable loss of resources,and of course it is not in line with the five-step waste hierarchy. Where plastic waste is not yet recycled in sufficient quantities, it should at least undergo energy recovery.

The Member States with high recovery rates are probably doing well for a simple reason: they have adopted national bans on landfilling waste with a high calorific value, such as plastic.

But even in Member States with high recovery rates, recycling rates are still far too low and must be significantly improved. This might require some adjustments in our legislation. At present Member States are only obliged to fulfil the 22.5 % minimum recycling target by weight for plastic packaging under the Packaging Directive (1994/62/EU). There is no obligation to recycle specific plastics and the identification system for plastic packaging under Commission Decision 97/129/EC you have mention is only intended to help recyclers distinguish specific plastics. Modern sorting systems already do this fully automatically.

On the specific question of plastic waste, we are preparing a broad consultation process through a green paper on a European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment, in which the challenges you mention will be fully addressed. This will be the first step towards enhanced producer responsibility in the plastic sector, with clear labelling for recyclers, which will also help consumers make informed choices. This, in turn, should improve recycling rates and prevent plastic waste.

We are also about to define “end of waste criteria” for plastic for future use. This will be an important boost for increased recycling of plastic waste for which there is already a dynamic recycling industry developing.

We shouldn’t forget that under the Waste Framework Directive, separate collection of plastic waste will be mandatory as from 2015 in all Member States – the effects of that will be felt all over the EU.


Unfortunately I can’t tell you anything about the other questions asked, but on the photo at the bottom of the page you’ll see the following people from left to right:

Commissioner Potočnik
Christine Dalby, Deputy Head of EU representation
Sophie Gray, Chair
Will Nichols, Business Green
Francesca Manchi, Asst political and information officer, EU
EC aide
Liz Gyeke, Packaging News
Katee Hui, Do the Green Thing
Hugh Knowles, Forum for Future

Commissioner potocnik holds a round table to discuss waste and sustainability

Commissioner Potočnik holds a round table to discuss waste and sustainability

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (15)

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  1. Teresa says:

    These people round conference table in the photo are fake greens. They are just playing at making packaging more sustainable. Forum for the Future is an NGO that you should be wary of as they want to move people into so-called Smart cities and into stack and pack housing with everybody monitored 24/7.

  2. Karin says:

    Well, it sort of sounds optimistic, possibly, but it is a bit woolly and sounds like any progress could be a long time coming. Is there no group such as Friends of the Earth or similar who could encourage lots of people to sign a petition asking for your sensible ideas to be put into practice a.s.a.p.?

  3. cozy grouping, i do wish you had been there with their glass bottled water on display…
    i like your term “woolly” may i borrow it? it describes so many would be greens..the ideas are there, the will is we stagnate in the talk stage and forget the goals.
    detach and endure, the rest of the woolies are sure to follow when the grass is greener..

  4. @ Teresa–Fake greens. I like that. Can I borrow it like Nadine’s borrowing “woolly?”
    @ Mrs. Green— I sort of wish you had gone. They might have taken you more seriously. You appeared written off. When I worked in D.C., we had teleconferences all the time, that was the only way anyone communicated in the city. It was way too time-consuming to commute anywhere. I can’t believe they couldn’t get that straight! Grrr…
    At least they answered your questions….

  5. Teresa says:

    @Jennifer Ward-Pelar: Yes go ahead. I have another term for you to use as well; day-glo green which is about inventing high tech products to save carbon emissions yet the manufacture of said inventions would contribute more to climate change and fossil fuels depletion.

  6. Teresa says:

    A link to an informative articles on different kinds of plastic and associated health issues:

    It seems that HDPE is the safest plastic to use followed by PET, LDPE and PP. I would like to see PVC and PS banned especially foam polystyrene.

  7. Jane says:

    WRAP have decided that plastic types should not be on packaging because this confuses customers. (It is in a report.) I disagree.

    It is criminal after all that money has been spent on creating closed loop recycling in this country that people are still not even aware that HDPE milk jugs/bottles are recyclable (amongst others) and that there are recycling companies in this country calling out for quality recyclate. Think and work outside the box people! We need joined-up thinking and joined-up systems.

    I think the BRC/WRAP info confuses customers because it does not explain anywhere that this is temporary and changing info relating to the overall percentage recycled in the UK. (Well that’s what they said when they first issued it.) It was exciting when it started but again there is this hole in the information – everybody needs to be checking their own Local Council’s info. It may bear no relation to what one’s Local Council has a contract for and gives the impression that more can be recycled from the Council collection than actually is. And just how much of the collection is just to build up a feedstock for incineration – something that plastics manufacturers and certain supermarkets of course would prefer rather than having to be truly sustainable in their packaging – or allowing consumers to choose?

    Energy From Waste is slowly being included in the waste hierarchy pyramid diagrams. Recycling comes before EfW so much more effort should be going into making sure that they are getting their recyclate instead of building more incinerators when the European ones don’t have enough feedstock.

  8. Jane says:

    New Head of Recoup says he’s never met anyone who found the polymer codes useful. He must have been talking to the wrong people… or listening to the wrong people…

    He also says that we need to look at labelling and how the message is passed on to consumers. Too right – is this evasion or avoidance?
    The supermarkets don’t and won’t use the same labelling. Agreements all seem to be voluntary… It is all seems a bit too cosy somehow.

  9. Jane says:

    So who still can’t recycle plastic bottles kerbside now? Are they in the minority? And who can’t recycle plastic bottles anywhere near them in the UK?

  10. Karin says:

    I think kerbside collection of plastic bottles in county-wide in Surrey.

  11. Mrs Green says:

    @Jane: We can’t recycle plastic bottles at the kerbside! We do have plastic bottle collections at local Bring Banks however…

  12. Poppy says:

    We do kerbside. Would love to say that’s countywide, but Mrs G is in the same County, so seemingly not.

  13. Jane says:

    I wish I’d kept a diary and could tell when various things were added to our kerbside collection. I think it has worked well in that each time something is added the Council had a great reason for recycling publicity.

  14. Jeremy Hunter says:

    These are the exact sort of people who get jets to Cancun (the accommodation getting the most obvious air conditioning and plenty of ice creams and chilled water) for Global Warming conferences.

    I can assume they only used about five chairs, for this is clearly a round table of half-arses.

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