The site in Fife was hailed as a huge step in the journey to recycle soft plastics. But a few months on, the plant is facing closure

Less than three months ago, one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets was hailing the opening of a multimillion-pound recycling plant in Fife as a crowning glory in the war on plastic.

The Yes Recycling plant, on the outskirts of Glenrothes, was intended to handle 15,000 tonnes a year of hard-to-recycle soft plastic. According to co-owner Morrisons, it was a major step forward in a “green industrial revolution”.

Fast forward to today, and the picture is far less positive. Administrator Grant Thornton is now seeking a buyer, with 60 jobs left hanging, amid fears the supermarket will lose much of its investment.

So what went wrong, and is the failure of the plant a sign of a wider malaise in the battle to find solutions to soft plastic?

The sheer ambition of the site was one issue. It opened months ahead of Morrisons’ announcement, in September last year, with the aim to turn a whole raft of used plastics into a plastic sheet called Ecosheet.

Rather than ‘high-grade plastic’, it was intended to produce low-grade soft plastic that would be suitable for a variety of uses including construction.

Yet Cireco Scotland – which operates Fife Council’s kerbside collection service and was charged with separating out the plastics ready for recycling – quickly ran into trouble.

“The biggest issue was the quality of the input materials coming in to the site,” says a source. “They were finding frying pans and lawnmowers in what was supposed to be a bale of soft plastic.

“As a result, the plant has never operated at anywhere near its full capacity and was burning through money before it was even open.”

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Source: Morrisons

The Yes Recycling plant, on the outskirts of Glenrothes, was intended to handle 15,000 tonnes a year of hard-to-recycle soft plastic

A leading recycling source  says there is always an element of risk in new tech. “Yes Recycling in Fife was a new business, bringing new technology and a novel recycled product to market, so was in an even more challenging position as it can take time to build that all-important income stream from new product sales,” they say.

“So, while it’s disappointing to see what’s happened, it’s more indicative of the challenges for any startup.”

Still, it’s undoubtedly a blow for Morrisons – and fellow backers of the scheme, including Nestlé, Zero Waste Scotland and Lloyds Bank.

The Grocer understands Morrisons is resigned to making a “significant loss” on its investment, with the best it can hope for being some “residual value” as a creditor if a buyer is found. It is believed highly unlikely Morrisons will have any major future interest in the site.

This could be taken as a sign of wider issues around soft plastic. After all, it’s not the first time a major food and drink firm has failed on this front.

In February, more than 6,500 homes in Maldon, Essex, took part in the third pilot of the FlexCollect project, backed by fmcg giants including Unilever, Mondelez, Nestlé and PepsiCo, as well as Defra and Wrap.

The trial aimed to promote the household recycling of ‘flexible’ plastics such as plastic bags, confectionery wrappers, foil and plastic film.

It had originally been hoped nine local authorities would join the trial, due to run until 2025. Despite “advanced discussions”, many decided not to join. Councils blamed a lack of time available in their teams.

Wider challenges

Still, the recycling source insists the direction of travel on soft plastic has not changed. And there has been progress.

While big-bang projects like Fife have captured the headlines, there has been a rise in retailer soft plastic collection points, of which there are now 6,000 across the UK.

The problem is, those aren’t enough. Only around 8%-10% of the estimated market of flexible plastic is being collected. So a more ambitious, wide-reaching solution is needed.

And it is only after collection that the real problems begin. Experts point out sorting is hugely expensive and requires sophisticated systems to avoid doing it by hand.

Meanwhile, whilst some polymer types such polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) have established ‘end market uses’, many others have not.

It may seem hopeless. But Jayne Paramor, technical manager for plastic at Wrap, insists the industry has learnt vast amounts since starting the journey on soft plastic – partly from its failures.

PinPep Morrisons Recycling_006[3]

Source: Morrisons

Soft plastic collection is expected to be enforced by 2027

“One of the things about Yes is that it was agnostic in the sort of materials it was taking. They were taking everything and finding a use for it rather than trying to turn it straight back into packaging materials which is, from a circularity point of view, the pinnacle.

“We are seeing those polymers going back into new products like bin liner bags and converted into rigid in-store reusable crate systems through mechanical recycling processes,” she adds.

“For example, Heinz did a pilot using advanced recycling technology to produce food-quality recycled content for their Baked Beanz snap pots, so the case is definitely being proven through some of these industry-led innovations.”

For Paramor, government delays in regulation have slowed the industry’s efforts on soft plastics by creating uncertainty. “The industry is really keen to move, but it has faced barriers and the situation with delays to regulations has definitely been a big factor.”

Not only has Defra’s rollout of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) resulted in widespread confusion, its delayed plans for rules on consistent collection of soft plastic by local authorities are among many hold-ups to long-promised environmental proposals.

As revealed by The Grocer, Wrap and IGD have already been forced to scale back some of the ambitions in their landmark Plastic Pact commitments, in part because of the issues dogging hard-to-recycle plastic.

These issues will have to be sorted by 2027, when soft plastic collection is expected to be enforced. “The legislation coming down the track will mean all soft plastic will have to be recyclable,” says a source. “And whilst there have been disappointments, it doesn’t mean supermarkets shouldn’t be brave and entrepreneurial.”

As they sum up: “What happened in Fife is a bump in the road, not a disaster.”