While paper recycling rates took a dip in the pandemic, we’re now successfully recycling around 85 per cent across Europe. Plastic recycling, however, still lags behind – can we turn this around? Neil Osment, Managing Director of paper packaging industry analysts NOA, wonders if it’s time to treasure plastic.

Cast your mind back to before the pandemic. It was a time when paper recycling rates were buoyant, at around 85 per cent. This took a hit during Covid, as home delivery boomed, and the emphasis for recycling moved from the supermarket – where the recycling operation is sophisticated and highly efficient – to home and kerbside collections.

The quality and efficiency of kerbside recycling varies across Europe from country to country. In the UK alone, we have as many as 170 different methods of collection across all our local authorities, with several different recycling regimes. Many involve mixing materials – paper is put in with plastic, with tins and with foil – and all this needs to be sorted, again slowing down the recycling operation. In the UK, this is being worked on by the DEFRA, to adopt a more consistent approach to recycling schemes across the country.

With such a mix of methods, and an increase in kerbside collections during the pandemic, recycling rates for paper dropped to around 75 per cent.

But this has now recovered, and we’re once again recycling around 85-90 per cent of paper across Europe. Shops and supermarkets are back at the forefront of recycling, and at the same time our kerbside recycling is becoming more efficient.

Not only that, recycled paper is reused as many as 15 times during its lifetime before it eventually goes back to a materials recovery facility (or MRF) where it is burned and the energy produced used for electricity.

And there is yet another factor in paper’s favour. It comes from a sustainable source: wood. We can keep growing trees – farming them, in fact – to replenish the paper stocks.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an ongoing demand for more fibre, to make more paper to make more packaging. Far from it. At NOA, we predict demand for paper packaging will grow at a steady rate of between 2% to 2.5% for the next few years. But, if we manage our resources and continue to recycle and to farm wood, then we should be able to establish and maintain a cyclical solution.

So much for how paper performs as a recyclable product and for its future demand.

For plastic, however, the picture is very different. In fact, this may sound controversial, but at NOA we believe we should ‘treasure’ plastic. Why? Because unlike paper, plastic doesn’t come from a sustainable source. It’s oil-based; it’s finite.

Moreover, we believe we should stop talking generically about ‘plastic’ and talk instead about ‘plastics’. If we can change this phraseology, we might start to find a solution to the plastics recycling problem.

Here’s why…

As we’ve mentioned, the efficiency of kerbside recycling is improving across Europe, although in some countries it is more advanced than in others. In Germany, for example, households have easy access to whole banks of recycling bins, for paper, different plastics, metal, glass and so on (and have been used to this system since the 1990s). While skiing in the French Alps recently, our ski village had swathes of large bins, each dedicated to collecting different packaging and waste materials.

So, could this system work for plastic – or, rather, plastics? If businesses and consumers were able to sort their plastics into different types, could this increase the recycling rate for plastics as a whole? Different plastics can’t be processed together. Can we introduce a plastics collection and separation system, like the ones in Germany and on the French ski slopes?

Currently, only 23-25 per cent of plastic packaging is recycled in Europe. Despite consumers’ and producers’ best efforts, the majority still ends up in landfill. And even the effort to recycle plastics doesn’t produce a like for like result. For every 100 tonnes of recycled plastic produced for reuse, we have been told that 140 tonnes has to be processed; that’s 40 per cent wastage.

We also know that many supermarkets are setting up systems to receive back soft plastics. This has been done as proactive initiatives, as soft plastics cannot be easily processed at recycling plants, often floating uncontrollably in the air due to the blower systems or clogging up the conveyor machinery at those recycling plants. The proactive collection of snack product packets have also been encouraged through the Terracycle recycling scheme, so that these soft plastics are diverted away from these recycling plants.

This is why is it so important to look at recycling rates – 85 per cent for paper, at best 25 per cent for plastics – and then focus on ways of improving both, but plastics in particular. The added benefit of recycling more plastics would be a reduction in the amount of micro-plastics getting into our food chain. Like we said, plastics are a mined product, they aren’t renewable, they should be ‘treasured’ by us.

Let’s have a quick look at waste, recycling and the cost to packaging producers.

Everyone in the sector is familiar with PRNs, or Packaging Recycling Notes - if you’re part of a packaging chain and you’re large enough to be affected by the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations then you’re purchasing PRNs which go towards the cost of recycling packaging waste.

Under the proposed new system of EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility), due for implementation in the UK in 2024, the value collected in this de factor tax will be much higher, in a drive to increase recycling. We hope that much of the proceeds of this tax will be diverted towards improving the existing recycling system and improve how packaging waste is processed, plastics in particular. Watch this space.

And finally, a word about SUPs: single use plastic, or – possibly – single use packaging? There’s pressure in the EU to adopt this interpretation, meaning SUP will also apply to paper. But, as we know, paper is much harder to reuse than some forms of plastic. Here, plastic can have an edge – we are familiar with the returnable plastic crate systems (RPCs), and this closed loop system of reusing plastic packaging could be one route to go down.

It’s clear the solutions aren’t easy to put into practice, or even obvious to find, but if our mantra of talking about plastics and not plastic is adopted, and we learn to ‘treasure’ the product, then perhaps we’ll be going a few more steps towards improving recycling rates for all types of packaging, whether in paper or plastics.