29 Jun 2016

There are clear environmental benefits to producing plastic products from recovered plastics, compared with using virgin polymers and disposing of the product post-use via incineration or landfill.

WRAP Plastics Market Situation Report 2016

Environmental Benefits

The main environmental benefit lies in the energy saved by avoiding the processes of oil refining and polymerisation of monomers. These are estimated to account for over 95% of the total energy consumed in plastics production.

The environmental gains are, however, heavily dependent on the level of contamination of the recovered plastics. Overall the choice of which polymer to use for packaging also has to be balanced, from an environmental point of view, with what it is trying to, i.e. protecting the product.

Hedgehog Plastic

If all of the 456,000 tonnes of plastic packaging collected kerbside from UK households in 2013/14 (including 351,000 tonnes of bottles, 87,000 tonnes of PTTs and 18,000 tonnes of film) was recycled, it would save almost 400,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions compared with landfill, which equates to taking around 125,000 cars off the road.


Significant improvements

Significant improvements have been made by local authorities, the recycling industry and other parts of the supply chain towards achieving a circular economy for plastics. This includes a sharp increase in plastic bottle recycling, the introduction of mixed plastic recycling collections by the majority of local authorities (LAs) and light-weighting of plastic packaging by brands and retailers.

  • The largest source of plastic packaging is the grocery retail sector, accounting for almost 1 million tonnes (or 43%) of plastic packaging arising in 2014
  • Around 891,000 tonnes of plastic packaging was recycled in 2015, an increase of more than 50% since the previous Plastics Market Situation Report (2009)

Future target concerns

Amid concern that the UK may not meet future plastic recycling targets, the sustainability of recycled plastic end markets is a concern for brands, manufacturers, LAs and reprocessors alike. This report shows that there are a wide range of end market sectors and applications potentially available for UK collected plastic.

European Commission's Circular Economy package (launched in December 2015) includes a target for 55% of all plastic packaging waste to be prepared for reuse or recycling by 2025. In order to do this, more plastic bottles and PTTs will need to be collected and recycled. Achieving these aims is not going to be without its challenges.

The launch of the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP) is an important lever to help achieve both existing UK and future EU plastics recycling targets. PIRAP will establish co-operation across the entire waste plastics supply chain, and through a series of agreed and co-ordinated actions should ensure that an increasing volume of end of life waste plastics is successfully recycled into sustainable second life applications.


End markets

The whole supply chain needs to consider the environmental impact of the plastic being used for PTTs, the ability of plastic reprocessors to recycle it, and the sustainability of end market demand. With over two-thirds of LAs collecting pots, tubs and trays (PTTs), finding sustainable end markets for these non-bottle rigid plastics is of particular concern. 
While recycling end markets are being developed for the main polymers, at the present time it is clear that used polystyrene (PS) packaging from the household waste stream is not currently recycled, and has little or no end market demand. WRAP is playing a role here in helping UK industry develop the technical and financial foundations for long-term end markets to be developed.

Plastic Recycling 


Operation Green Fence 

Operation Green Fence (OGF), introduced in early 2013, resulted in stricter enforcement of Chinese import controls over the quality of recovered material imported into the country. Meanwhile, the slowdown in economic growth in China has raised concerns that growth in demand for recovered plastic from China may slow.


China remains the dominant destination for UK recovered plastic, accounting for almost two-thirds of the UK's exports. China's focus on moving towards a more consumer driven economy and away from manufacturing, the formalisation of its recycling sector and the introduction of circular economy policies and targets may mean that in future there is a growing availability of high quality, domestically available recovered plastic, reducing the demand for imports.

Competition with other countries also exporting recovered plastics, uncertain legislation, enforcement practices in China and other end destinations and the prospect of export markets showing a growing reliance on domestically sourced material means that the risks are high.


Plastic recyclers

Plastics recyclers are particularly vulnerable to changes in market conditions, due to their position in the middle of the supply chain. Lack of control over input quality, availability and cost means that reprocessors are at risk of receiving lower quality material.


Reprocessors are also largely dependent on spot markets for selling their product, which can result in sharp fluctuations in revenue, while also risk being easily substituted for virgin material. A business model based on the ability to supply products to a wide range of end markets, and at low cost, is most likely to be resilient and robust in the current environment.

Home -plastic -material
Any loss in UK plastic reprocessing capacity could result in a heavier reliance upon export markets for recovered plastic while also potentially making it more difficult to meet plastic packaging recycling targets.

Plastic bottle prices


Recovered polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles prices and mixed polymer plastic bottle prices have generally declined since 2011 due to lower oil and cotton prices and concerns about China's enforcement of import controls. Meanwhile, natural high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottle prices have remained relatively strong in comparison due to virgin HDPE production problems. It is important to note that all commodity markets move in cycles, and recovered plastic prices are no different.


Recycling Infrastructure

Recycling infrastructure based on the ability to supply products to a wide range of end markets, and at low cost, are those businesses most likely to be resilient and robust in the current environment.

Recent approvals for its Ecotrax® recycled plastic railway sleeper, the impending European ban on creosote and growing demand for alternatives to timber sleepers has led Sicut to establish a UK manufacturing base. Sicut anticipates that it will utilise over 25,000 tonnes of recycled plastic waste per annum by 2018/19 and that this will make a significant contribution to UK targets on sustainability, waste and landfill, as well as reducing the demand for imported hardwood.



Bioplastics are those derived, either partially or completely, from biomass sources. Any plastic however derived (bio or petroleum), that is manufactured/ altered in order to degrade at end of life could present a significant problem to conventional plastic recyclers, even if technically it remains fully compatible with its non-biodegradable equivalent in the actual recycling process. This is because the progress and rate of degradation is unknown, rendering the recycled polymer untrustworthy for any long term durable second life application.

Green -bottle 2-e 1355931384859 

'Drop-in' bio derived polymers that remain fully compatible with their petro-chemically derived equivalents in the recycling process (for example bio-PE and bio-PET) do not present a problem to plastic recyclers, so long as they are not also biodegradable.


Bio derived polymers that are not fully compatible with their petro-chemically derived equivalents in the recycling process (such as Polylactic acid which is often made from corn starch) may be a problem for recyclers - irrespective of whether they are degradable or not.


Global production capacity of bioplastic is projected to increase from 3.5 million tonnes in 2011 to nearly 12 million tonnes in 2020. However, with global plastics production expected to reach 400 million tonnes in 2020, the market for bioplastics will remain small.


Bioplastics are thought to have a negligible impact on global food supply. According to estimates from European Bioplastics, the amount of land devoted to supplying bioplastic feedstock totalled 0.6 million hectares in 2013, 0.01% of global agricultural land.



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