Plastic recycling and the impact within the landscape industry
The cost of recycled plastic is low because of the processes required to produce saleable material
Recycled plastic is worth in the region of £500 per ton. Whilst this figure sounds high, the cost of transforming waste plastic into a material that can be reused is expensive. This means the demand for waste plastic is comparatively low compared to, for example, scrap metal.
Plastic pots and trays are lightweight materials which, unless they are identical in size and shape, are time-consuming and labour intensive to sort and stack. Consignments of used plastic pots or packaging from landscaping companies are likely to be light but bulky, and therefore low density.
The largest articulated lorry trailer, which measures 13 metres in length and 2.5 metres wide, can be filled to capacity with plastic pots but likely to contain no more than 4 to 6 tonnes of plastic material in total. An articulated lorry has the ability to carry approximately 30 tonnes of material and costs the operator in the region of £2 per mile to run, regardless of the weight on the lorry. Efficiency is key to profit, which means plastic, at the earlier stages of the recycling journey at least, is at a disadvantage due to its low density and high transport costs.
The variety of plastic available means sorting it is problematic
Once collected, plastic must be sorted into similar types before the process of recycling can begin. The domestic sorting process is now commonly undertaken by machines that can detect and sort plastic by colour. This technology has sped up domestic waste recycling significantly, but the technology comes at a price; each sorting machine costs in the region of £250,000.
Sorting machines are programmed to identify a specific colour and reject the rest. Therefore, several machines are required to work in series to sort and identify different types of plastic. A significant investment is required to create a system that can identify and sort several types of plastic.
Given the financial outlay of the machinery, it makes financial sense to programme machines to collect the plastics of which there is the greatest amount. In UK domestic waste, the 5 most common types of plastic waste are:
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) e.g. soft drink and water bottles, packaging trays
- High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) e.g. shopping bags, bottle caps, soap containers
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) e.g. water bottles, furniture
- Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) e.g. Trays, containers, drink can holder, drink cartons, bin bags
- Polypropylene (PP) e.g. plant pots, bottle caps
Most plastic plant pots are made from polypropylene, which is the 5th most popular type of plastic collected from domestic kerbside waste collections. Horticultural trays are generally made from polystyrene; the 6th most popular type of plastic. As polypropylene and polystyrene represent less popular types of plastic collected, and volumes are therefore lower, they are more likely to be rejected from recycling processes in favour of more common materials such as PET and HDPE, commonly found in plastic bottles.
Most commercial plastic waste, and particularly waste generated by either the agricultural or horticulture industry is generally either too bulky or variable to be sorted by machine, meaning most commercial waste in the earlier stages of the process is sorted manually. This is obviously more labour intensive and represents an additional cost.
Recycling plastic is an energy-hungry process
Once sorted and collected at a processing site, plastic must pass through several stages before it can be sold as a material suitable for reuse. The cost of these processes is significant; water (to wash the material) and electricity (to power the equipment to break-up/melt the material) are required in large quantities to recycle plastic, and it is estimated approximately £200 worth of water and £200 worth of electricity must be invested for each ton of used plastic in the recycling process. The cost of each of the processes has a significant impact on the profit gained from recycled plastic as an end-product.
The UK does not currently have the capacity to process the plastic it consumes
Up until relatively recently, most of the plastic consumed in the UK has been exported for recycling. This is because the UK does not currently have the infrastructure required to recycle used plastic in the volumes produced, and, controversially, the UK relies on exporting to achieve European plastic recycling targets. Whilst the UK consumes a significant amount of plastic, manufacturing is now a relatively small part of the industry in the UK and therefore demand for plastic as a raw material is relatively low.
Far-eastern countries are significant users of plastic and many have the capacity to recycle large volumes of waste plastic. Whilst western countries have traditionally relied on exporting large volumes of waste to countries including China, Indonesia and Malaysia, this is now far less common and European countries are increasingly recycling waste using local facilities. Whilst China has now prohibited the importation of waste plastic from western countries, it now imports plastic pellets on the basis these are a product and no longer a waste.
What are the options open to landscape professionals wishing to responsibly recycle their plastic?
Collecting waste plastic from commercial or domestic users is a burden, which is why plastic plant pot collection at domestic kerb-side domestic collections varies between councils. Commercial users of horticultural plastics must pay for disposal.
Due to the relatively small volumes of plastic waste produced by most landscape professionals and the expensive processes required to transform to reuse the material, it is not practical or efficient for landscape businesses to sell waste directly to recycling businesses. Therefore, several organisations exist which operate by collecting smaller volumes of plastic from agricultural and horticultural users and selling this material in bulk to recycling businesses.
Farm XS Ltd operates a scheme open to all land-based commercial users of plastic. Payment of an annual membership fee allows members to deposit a wide range of plastic materials at depots throughout England and Wales (whilst there are no depots in Scotland, arrangements can be made for Scottish businesses). Deposits of plastic material can be made in builder’s bags, whilst out-of-date chemicals and hazardous waste can also be deposited for an additional fee.
Farm XS Ltd recycle 98% of the waste presented to them, all through UK-based partners. FarmXS Ltd is also part of a wider industry initiative – the green tractor scheme – to ensure plastic handled to them is recycled sustainably.
The Farm XS scheme can be reviewed online here.