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How much plastic is actually being recycled?

Research shows that the recycling industry is overestimating how much plastic packaging waste actually gets recycled, suggesting that businesses are not performing as well as they think.

Official statistics say that UK households and businesses produced 2.26 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste in 2015. Almost 39 per cent was claimed to have been recycled.

However, by analysing the composition of waste in the UK, environmental consultants Eunomia found that the real amount of plastic packaging waste produced is well over a million tonnes higher at around 3.5 million tonnes. 

One of the major causes of the miscalculation is that when packaging is placed on the market it is clean, dry and free from extraneous material such as labels. However, when it is collected for recycling and measured, the weight is likely to be higher due to moisture and contaminants. 

Another problem is that the UK’s packaging producer responsibility scheme is currently designed to comply with targets at the lowest possible cost to businesses. 

‘Producer responsibility’

All UK companies which handle at least 50 tonnes of packaging a year and have a turnover of at least £2 million are obligated to pay a contribution to the recycling industry.

However, Eunomia says this system only covers up to 10 per cent of the cost of domestic recycling, whereas some other European countries recover 100 per cent of the cost from businesses.

Eunomia chairman Dominic Hogg said the findings were “not really surprising”.

“The existing system of producer responsibility is failing. It has allowed problems with plastic packaging to grow, and in its most basic responsibility – demonstrating compliance with a target – the data cannot be trusted.”

Some experts are calling for an overhaul of producer responsibility rules to boost demand for recycled packaging materials from manufacturers through taxes and charges.  

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