A chronic shortfall in recycling capacity means the UK faces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic film accumulating in the next five years with no way for it to be re-used in the food chain.
A new report by Wrap reveals there has been a boom in the amount of consumer flexible plastic coming on to the market, with the figure increasing by 55,000 tonnes from 2019 to 2021.
However, at the same time, cash-strapped local authority collection rates for the material, including food pouches, carrier bags, food bags and other films, have “stagnated”.
The report reveals that in 2021 just 60 (16%) of councils reported collecting one or more type of film at the kerbside, a fall of 1% from 2020.
It estimates that 14,000 tonnes of film was collected at the kerbside in 2020/21. Although this is an increase from 11,000 tonnes in 2019/20, it represents the same paltry collection rate of 4%.
Wrap’s report shows that faced with the growing torrent of flexible plastic coming on to the market, schemes run by supermarkets to collect hard to recycle plastic at the front of store are battling against the tide.
The report says that as of October 2022, 6,027 stores were offering collection points, up from just over 5,000 in 2021.
The latest figures show 1,390 tonnes of material was reported as collected, though Wrap said figures for 2022 were not yet available.
However, Wrap said its figures rammed home the crisis facing local authorities ahead of the rollout of the government’s extended producer responsibility scheme, which from March 2027 will see councils responsible for collecting recyclable plastic film and flexible packaging from both households and businesses across the UK.
The body has also stepped up its calls for the government to reform its Plastic Packaging Tax to stop recycled food packaging produced from so-called Mass Balance Allocation processes being hit by the tax, which it said was massively holding back investment in recycling capacity.
Wrap said its latest intelligence suggested there was around 115,000 tonnes of planned additional UK plastic film reprocessing capacity scheduled over the next five years.
“Should all this capacity come on-stream in full then the total UK film plastic packaging reprocessing capacity could come to over 350kt,” says the report.
“This, however, would still only be just over half of the flexible plastic currently placed on the market and would leave a significant shortfall in the domestic reprocessing capacity required to increase recycling rates.”
Helen Bird, businesses collaboration manager at Wrap, said: “Plastic film is the key limiting factor for the UK Plastics Pact to achieve its target.
“Whilst we should be looking to remove as much as we can, how we recycle it is crucial.
“There are only so many park benches that we need. The biggest market is in food packaging but we need to be investing in the infrastructure required now, probably yesterday.”