There are two strands to this question; public opinion and technological application.
In recent weeks we’ve seen a massive and welcome shift in UK public opinion, to the point where we now see ministers toting their reusable coffee cups to cabinet with pride, but there is far less evidence of a shift in public opinion outside the UK. Yes, there are a few well publicised remedial actions overseas, an Indian beach here and a Polynesian island there, but the scale of those interventions are vanishingly small when compared with political actions such as the Chinese ban on the import of mixed wastes of all sorts, including plastics.
So is there actually a sea change in policy ?
To me the EU’s publication of a plastics strategy seems little more than an early implementation of its existing Circular Economy Package (CEP), currently wending its way through the corridors of continental power. Its not a bad thing that some acceleration and a bit of cash (~€350m) has been brought to the table early, but when compared to the estimated economic incentives proposed to be included in the CEP as a whole (~€150bn) the recently announced Plastics Strategy is a drop in the proverbial ocean.
Having investigated ways to gain access to the funds associated with this strategy and actually start to roll-out change at scale, the barriers to getting hands-on with helpful cash are ridiculously high. The minimum project value that we’ve found is £50,000, which means that a start-up would need to have that cash in the bank, spend it on R&D and then wait for many months to get maybe 60% of it back. So the EU is talking a good talk, but definitely favouring the big established players and those with vested interests in the status quo. The status quo being not recycling plastics, as I will go into in a bit more detail below.
In the last few days there has been a BREXIT-tinged argument over dates, 2030 for the EU vs 2042 for the UK, comparing vacuum-packed apples to cling-filmed oranges, but the ultimate end-date for the production of non-biodegradable plastics isn’t the biggest problem today. That’s an issue for the big petrochemical companies and their multi-billion dollar plants, the infrastructure that they depend on and the long term resource use profiles that we need to put in place to make sure that we have a sustainable economy in the longer, multi-decadal term. As a nation that imports most of its raw plastics, the UK will inevitably be ‘downstream’ of any systemic change.
So I contend that the current slew of policy announcements are strongly biased towards technological-economic issues around large-scale plastics production systems not immediate social or environmental issues that are apparent at the disposal/recycling end of the system. Moreover they really don’t address the Circular Economy in any meaningful way.
Today we have an immediate issue to solve. There are millions of tonnes of all sorts of plastics going to landfill or being indiscriminately dumped right now. It is a global issue but I’ll give a local example.
We’ve already started to run out of holes in the ground in South West England. Cornwall has already shuttered its last trade waste landfill and its last landfill for domestic residual waste will have closed permanently by December 31st this year.
We’ve known that this day has been coming for almost a decade but here in Cornwall we still only have a domestic recycling rate around 30% by weight.
There are a few local wrinkles and special challenges. Recycling rate varies with town and through time. In the summer, when holiday-makers boost the local population and economy, recycling rates drop more in the areas with more visitors. This rate of change issue is a statistical inevitability not a comment on litterbuggery, but even so local services are stretched every Summer to keep up with public waste collections.
So it is a bigger geographic challenge to structure a sustainable recycling business for Cornwall’s dynamic and highly distributed rural population of around 300k than it would be if the same population were gathered together in a city. Cities the size of Sunderland or Newcastle Upon Tyne, whose populations vary more with home football fixtures than Bank Holiday weather, have both population density and stability on their side where it comes to waste management (and enforcement).
With no landfill remaining, the solution implemented in The Duchy is a combined Energy-from-Waste & export of waste for landfill/recycling. However where an urban E-f-W plant might have a recycling line in front of the energy recovery plant, Cornwall (myself included) doesn’t attempt to minimise incineration and simply burns all domestic municipal waste that isn’t separated by householders. The materials placed in recycling bins and boxes around the county go for mass recycling at a location unknown and no trade waste is taken by the E-f-W plant.
Cornwall is not unusual in this kind of structure. The government (both UK & EU) has set up a market place that has promoted the use of E-f-W over increased R&D on recycling backed by legislation on difficult to recycle plastics, such as mixed plastic packaging. And despite the good words in the CEP, E-f-W is still badged as recycling and incentivised as as such. This policy has led us to the point where many professionals in the waste business see a looming overcapacity of UK and EU-based E-f-W, reflecting the situation in some Nordic countries where municipal waste is imported from overseas to burn. In effect we have a market place that is set up to increase the value of wastes for burning through competition for a resource that should be shrinking, rather than a combined policy aimed at minimising the volume of wastes in the first place.
Until we see a separation of E-f-W from materials recycling in macro-policy, both in the UK and the EU, we will see perverse incentives for many years to come. Cornwall’s E-f-W plant has a 25 year life and was kicked into life last year, so it will take an act of supreme political will for any change of direction here before 2042 which, co-incidentally, is the same timescale that the UK government has set for the eradication the use of avoidable plastics.
So for now I believe that people power is the more likely route to achieve results (outside of China) whether that power is expressed through successful grassroots campaigns like those of Surfers Against Sewerage and 2MinuteBeachClean, mass media campaigns like Sky News’ Ocean Rescue or fully commercial solutions like our own.
Fishy Filaments is not a campaigning organisation. Instead the core idea is that we can fundamentally revalue used plastics through the application of technology and know-how. As an engineer I believe that good words are good but practical solutions are better, so this year (the UK Year of Engineering) I will leave the campaigning to those who are better at it and crack on with getting down and dirty with as many used fishing nets as I can get my hands on.
I remain skeptical of any substantial change in policy across Europe. And perversely that €150bn pot of R&D cash included in the Circular Economy Package may actually slow change down because it is only really accessible by the encumbents. Disruptors do not seem welcome.
To end on a positive note though; one really good piece of recent news is that the UK will be directing some of its Overseas Aid budget specifically towards prevention of plastic pollution. There are some relatively easy wins possible around the world through better drinking water provision, stronger waste management and the development of local recycling industries. We know the solutions already, so its really time to just crack on with those things helping make life cleaner, healthier and better for rapidly growing urban populations around the world, with the by-product being less plastic pollution.