Consumer and producer responsibility, increasing quality and quantity of collected material, creating demand through recycled content and innovative thinking were all part of the discussion for the record numbers attending the RECOUP annual conference. Alongside this, new editions of the RECOUP Recyclability by Design and UK Household Plastics Collection Survey were also launched.

It has quickly become the event of the year in the plastics recycling calendar, and did not disappoint with delegate numbers approaching 300. Stuart Foster, RECOUP CEO noted “it is not just the number of people but also the quality of delegates that really stands out. This conference allows the whole of the extended plastics recycling supply chain to network and exchange ideas. RECOUP will be taking on board the key priorities and with the help of its members continue to lead in the area of plastic resources and recycling into 2018.”

In the keynote address, journalist Lucy Siegle challenged and inspired the audience to engage with what she viewed as the many new and innovative areas of development within plastics recycling including the use of plastics within textiles and the critical requirement to engage the consumer. Throughout the day there was a shared view that increasing recycled content in manufacturing would be one of the keys to success, whether through voluntary arrangements, incentives or a legislative approach. The importance placed on designing recyclability into product and packaging manufacture was also significant with a number of examples referenced, together with a call from Plastic Recyclers Europe to mandate recycled content.

However, as Robin Baird from Resource Efficient Solutions challenged the audience by saying, “It is essential in delivering a sustainable and thriving society that we must all take responsibility for our actions. This includes householders seeing and being aware of the importance of their choices when handling recyclable packaging.  Only when we all take collective responsibility can we truly work towards a circular future”.

Throughout the day some speakers challenged the apparent lack of progress and re-visiting of old issues. But it was evident that there has been more dialogue in recent years between sectors to address the barriers to improving plastic recycling. 

In the afternoon the delegates were able to access a choice of sessions to reflect their industry sector.  In the kerbside collections & sorting session, the key theme of improving quality through resource recognition was highlighted by Stuart Hayward-Higham from Suez, referring to the collection system as “material harvesting” to endorse the value of the recyclate. He also pointed out the collection systems themselves need to be convenient but not confusing to the consumer which linked to WRAP’s consistency programme.  

In the session entitled Designing for Recyclability, Graham Fox from Innocent Drinks stated that in a move from cartons to PET bottles they had found that their sales were stronger than ever.  Innocent had a further commitment to use 30% rPET in bottles from 2018 and were actively campaigning for the wider use of rPET. Iain Ferguson from the Co-operative Group re-stated to the the audience that the Co-op had a commitment that by 2020 80% of the Co-op products will have packaging that is easy to recycle.  Also in that session Paul East, Packaging Technologist from RECOUP outlined some of RECOUP’s current projects regarding packaging recyclability. 

The third of the breakout sessions focussed on recycling itself, with the Plastic Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP) a conduit to achieving much more. There was a clear message that quality and meeting demand was key to success. The need to demonstrate reprocessed plastic is fit for purpose and desirable was identified by Steve Burns from Impact Solutions, who compared it to a popular car brand that has improved its image significantly over the last two decades. The opportunities presented by new alternative processes was highlighted by Adrian Griffiths of Recycling Technologies, who also shared their involvement in the exciting new Project Beacon initiative in Scotland which will use a range of new technology innovations to recycle nearly all plastics.

The thought provoking final session of the day brought Greenpeace, Sky News, Keep Scotland Beautiful, INCPEN, Marks and Spencer and Icaro together to discuss the consumer perceptions of plastics within the natural environment. Icaro shared results from a new survey focussing on attitudes to plastics in the marine environment.  The survey included questions to consumers on locations where they had seen plastic litter, the consumer perception of the reason for littering behaviour, and attitude towards a DRS system. Greenpeace speaker, Elena Polisano, commented that the tide was already turning, the impacts were already visible and the consumer was engaging with the issue. Greenpeace pointed out that increasing recycling and producer responsibility reform remained one of the future challenges.  

Commenting on the conference, Mike Baxter from headline sponsors, RPC bpi Recycled products said “right now plastics manufacturers and the plastics recycling industry are under the spotlight; from the press, the NGOs and politicians.  We believe our industry can be proud of its achievements with the amount of waste plastics recovered and recycled in the UK.  Today’s Conference has provided the ideal platform for promoting the plastics recycling industry’s successes whilst also discussing current issues with many of the key stakeholders”.

There was agreement that there were no silver bullets or magic wand to solve the recycling conundrum but that there were real opportunities and signs of change.  Sectors are becoming more co-ordinated, and more partnership working is evident.  Plastics Recycling charity, RECOUP continue to be a conduit through which the reprocessors, manufacturers, brand owners, local authorities and waste management companies can solve issues for the benefit of the whole of the value supply chain.   

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