Beyond the bale: Viridor unveils plan to eliminate waste plastic exports

Viridor says its soon-to-be-opened Avonmouth plastics recycling plant will reprocess over 80,0000 tonnes of plastic, creating recycled raw material ready to be returned to the economy.

Recycling and resource management firm Viridor has unveiled its “Vision for Zero” – a plan to reduce (to zero) the amount of plastic waste exported from the UK.

The firm says it has backed this up with investment in recycling and reprocessing capacity in its Avonmouth plant, scheduled to open in early 2022, and says this alone will reduce its export of waste plastics by 90%. It is also calling on the Government to put in place policy measures that will enable multi-million pound investment in state of the art recycling and reprocessing facilities that will enable the UK to process all of its plastic waste domestically and play a central role in the UK’s decarbonisation plans.

The vision is set out in the company’s circular economy for plastics report and proposes a “cradle to cradle” approach to recycling which it says will significantly increase the number of times plastics can be recycled, in addition to a ban on all plastics that are difficult to recycle. The “Closing the Loop: Viridor’s roadmap to a truly circular plastics economy” report is integrated with what the firm describes as a sector-leading decarbonisation plan (published earlier this year), which sets out a plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2040, and to become the first net-negative emissions waste and recycling company in the UK by 2045. The circular economy for plastics report highlights the significant role that recycling plastics can play in ensuring the UK achieves net zero.

The report, “Closing the Loop: Viridor’s roadmap to a truly circular plastics economy”, was launched at a stakeholder event held at the new Avonmouth plant. It will seemingly reprocess over 80,0000 tonnes of plastic, more than 1.6 billion bottles, tubs, and trays, creating recycled raw material to return to the economy. The plant, which is in the final stages of commissioning, is described as a UK first as it will also be powered by the processing of non-recyclable household waste in the same building. Once operational, the firm says over 90% of its plastics exports will now be recycled domestically, reducing total UK plastic exports by up to 8%.

The £317 million plastics recycling and reprocessing and energy from waste plant will also create 135 new jobs and save 126,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, the equivalent of taking over 67,000 cars off the road.

The report sets out to highlight the significant environmental and economic contribution that the circular economy for plastic could make if all UK plastic waste was recycled and reprocessed in the UK. Extending the length of recycling contracts to at least 10 years would create stable long-term revenues for recyclers, stimulating significant investment in infrastructure across the UK, driving the industry towards Net Zero and increasing jobs. The following could be achieved:

● An estimated c.1.3[i] million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year could be saved by increasing the UK plastic packaging recycling rate from 51% to 70%, the equivalent of taking c.685,000 cars off the road.
● If five state-of-the-art plastic recycling plants, similar to the Avonmouth plant, were built, plastic waste exports from the UK could end. These plants, an estimated £1.5 billion of investment, would alone create nearly 700 construction and operations jobs.
● To deliver this ambition for the UK, Viridor recommends that the plastics used by industry, especially in food and packaging, should be restricted to just four types: ​​ drinks bottles (PET), milk bottles (HDPE), bottle caps/tops (PP) films (LDPE) to make plastic recycling and reprocessing easier – for the recycling industry, waste management/collection companies and consumers. This would mean banning the routine use of plastics like PVC (e.g. in yoghurt pots), expanded polystyrene (e.g. packaging for fragile materials), and oxydegradable plastics (sometimes used in plastic bags).

waste plastic

Currently the UK recycles 51% of its plastic waste, 1.17 million tonnes each year, with recycling rates for some plastics such as food tub films being as low as 7%. Over 600,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling and reprocessing are currently being exported.

Kevin Bradshaw, CEO, Viridor said: “Reviewing how we extract raw materials, manufacture products and consume them is an essential but often missing element of how we need to tackle climate change. The UK’s ambitious targets for Net Zero will only be achieved if we tap into the resources that we all throw away today and improve recycling rates and capacity in the UK to deliver a more circular economy. Ending the export of plastic waste can become a reality through stimulating infrastructure investment in recycling and reprocessing and by working more collaboratively between industry, local and central Government.”

Defra Resources and Waste Minister Jo Churchill MP said the new strategy was “an excellent example of the ambitious plans we need to see from industry if we are to move to a more circular economy, where we significantly reduce our reliance on plastics and recycle more of our waste”. She highlighted government action aimed at assisting this transition, including the creation of a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, introducing tougher controls on waste exports, and making manufacturers more responsible for their packaging. “Together, these measures are taking meaningful strides towards our goal of preventing all avoidable plastic waste by 2042,” she said.

To “unlock multi-million pound investment in state of the art recycling and reprocessing facilities” Viridor recommends:

  • The recycling and reprocessing industry to have similar contractual arrangements that underpin other infrastructure sectors such as energy from waste and offshore wind. This would include longer-term contracts of at least 10 years that create the stable revenues necessary to deliver multi-million pound investment. Currently the sector has average contract lengths of between 3-5 years. In contrast, the offshore wind sector has 15 year “contracts for difference” that guarantee a fixed price for energy suppliers, giving them confidence and security to invest in new wind farms.
  • The Waste & Resources sector to be designated as “critical infrastructure” in the same way as water, health, energy and defence, in recognition of its vital role in keeping the country clean and safe.

Viridor has previously declared a Circular Economy ambition incorporating the following five key pledges as part of its contribution to creating a circular economy for waste plastics in the UK:

1. End plastic waste export
2. Drive an infrastructure market for recycling
3. Expand operations to hard-to-recycle materials
4. Extract plastics from general waste and drive novel reprocessing techniques
5. Drive innovation and regulatory improvement to achieve complete plastic circularity

[i] Based on 2019 plastic placed on market (2.3 mt) and 2019 recycle rate of 51% (source WRAP). Virgin plastic emissions 2.4 tCO2/tonne plastic. Reprocessing emissions 0.4 tCO2/tonne plastic. Assumes non-recycled material to landfill/energy from waste at a 50:50 ratio. Car emissions sourced from DfT and DEFRA. Total saving 1,285,108 t/CO2.