Q&A on The Future of Recycling - The Challenge for Plastics

Mike Biddle, MBA Polymers President and founder, answers questions raised by his presentation The future of recycling - The challenge for plastics.


Q1. Michael Stewart, Senior Economic Officer Government of Ontario
Why do you not have a commercial plant in the US?

MB. That’s a great question and one that often comes up sooner or later given that the US has a higher concentration of most wastes per person than practically any other country on the planet. As you might imagine, that’s quite a personal issue for me as well as being a business issue.

In Canada, you have policy in place for electronics recycling. It’s the same for the EU, Japan, Taiwan and even China and India. These policies required that end-of-life electronics must be sent to a licensed and permitted recycling facility for responsible recycling. Canada goes farther than most countries in saying that after you process that material you’ve created - metals, plastics and so forth, you (the electronics recycler) are responsible for the downstream processing of those materials as well - even if those materials are sent out of Canada.

You don’t have to treat it yourself, but if you send it to a downstream processor, you have to ensure that they at least abide by some minimum processing and EH&S standards laid out by Canada and you have to prove that. So if we take plastics out of Canada, it has to be audited by the Canadian Government and in Canada this is usually carried out at the Provincial level. We have been subjected to this from at least one recycler and Province in Canada and while it’s a great deal of work to comply, we encourage this type of downstream monitoring and auditing because it’s more likely to result in the safe (human and environmental) processing as well a providing a more fair market for domestic recyclers. That’s the type of level playing field we’re asking for!

In the US, we have some limited and patchwork (state by state) electronics legislation in place but it’s much less comprehensive than most other countries and there’s no downstream accountability for what happens to those materials after they’ve been liberated, concentrated or sorted. Again, that’s the level playing field we’ve been talking about. The other issue is that most of the US doesn’t have good data or legislation addressing the disposition of end of life products like electronics. So we don’t have the material coming back in a very organised way as you do in Canada.


Q2. Baroness Anne Jenkin, House of Lords
Q I’m converted! Last week we saw a film called ‘Trashed’ - narrated by Jeremy Irons. It’s a very powerful video which goes very well with the message you’re passing.

A. That’s very good to know. Communications are so important. Most of the world doesn’t know this is possible, so part of what we are doing is getting the message out there! In essence, that’s the purpose of this event. We’ll look into what ‘Trashed’ is doing. (MBA Polymers indeed made contact with the Director of Trashed the very next day and the two organizations agreed to work together to improve communications of both the problems and solutions. So both organizations thank you Baroness!).


Q3. Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Cambridge University Programme for Sustainable Leadership
Q My concern is that there’s a disconnect between what you’re telling us, which is a very positive message, and how that’s filtering into the EU. In my experience, a lot of industry is not conforming to this kind of approach. By working with recyclists we can decrease energy use, decrease CO2 output and move forward to create green jobs. Could you comment?

A. Absolutely, and we have two very simple messages - something that policy makers can grasp and enact. We’re often seen as “barbarians” in America when it comes to the environment (apologies!), but we’re trying to get market pull – something the US seems to “get” (hence our high consumption rates). So in the US we are saying that want standards in place and that processing must meet certain standards on recycled plastic content.

One example: the US government helped bring into being (via the US EPA) an electronics procurement standard modelled after LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which was developed for buildings. The electronics standard, EPEAT (Electronics Procurement Environmental Assessment Tool, http://www.epeat.net ), has many criteria that manufacturers must meet including energy efficiency, significantly reducing “substances of concern”, providing electronic takeback in countries where they sell products and post-consumer recycled plastics content.

That’s an easy win for Government and would create a very strong market pull. I can tell you that the computer and electronics manufacturers started coming to us much more seriously once they saw that there was a potential market pull if they used recycled materials! Legislative enactment changed the procurement policy of the US Government, still the single biggest purchaser in the world, and it is now buying environmentally sustainable products. Other governments and large companies around the world have also started to adopt this or other green procurement standards as a way to help develop that so important market pull and to demonstrate to their constituents that they are responsible organizations or manufacturers.

The level playing field is a long haul for the US, it’s less of a long haul in Europe and we’ve already got part of that in place. It’s more about enacting and enforcing it – as Canada has done.


Q4. Lord Oxburgh, House of Lords
Q You didn’t explain much of your technology? Fundamentally you’re producing a raw material. Given regulatory assistance and possible tax waivers, will you able to produce this more cheaply in the future?

A. That’s absolutely right. We’ve been at this for twenty years with a lot of investor money and it’s taken a great deal to make this work operationally and economically.

An analogy I use in the US is the market pull of recycling paper. The US government saw that we only recycled 5% of paper and that recycled paper costs more than virgin paper. So they ‘primed the pump’ by setting recycled paper content for the paper they procure and that’s what policy does - it gets something going in the right direction. Now you can buy recycled paper for less or equivalent prices to virgin paper.

An even better example for today is EU electronics recycling. When electronics recycling was first enacted there was a huge concern among the manufacturers because it was “producer responsibility’ – based or EPR (extended producer responsibility) style of legislation. This means that the manufacturers are responsible for costs associated to the proper end-of-life management of their products.

In the early days of the law there was a fee paid to the electronics recycler- you had to pay them to process the material. Now, because an infrastructure has been created with associated economies of scale and process learning and because there’s growing processing competition, recyclers actually have to buy most of the electronics they process .The policy created the situation and it began to grow - like fertilizing the lawn! In short, competition came into being because of thoughtful policy and this competition added economies of scale and it is now self-fulfilling.

We are asking for a similar ‘priming of the pump’

When we first approach big car, appliance, electronics or computer companies, they usually provide us with lots of stories of failed attempts to use recycled plastics in the past, usually because the quality, consistency and/or volumes were not sufficient. Without some type of market incentive, most manufacturers aren’t too keen to take risks. I want to be clear that we are not looking for subsidies, rather market incentives to start the process off.

Nigel Hunton MBA CEO Every day we get approaches from people. This week a student doing a sustainability-based project at Leeds University suggested we could bar code all waste from houses, monitor what’s collected and get reductions on council tax whilst helping local authorities to meet their recycling targets. So lots of young people are coming up with great ideas- raising awareness and encouraging recycling that will really make a difference in the future.


Q5. Anthony Clarke, Editor, Plastics and Rubber Weekly.
Q Do you think that what you and the recycling plastics industry as a whole, are doing can help change people’s view at to what is seen as a pollutant?

A. Thank you for asking a question about something I care a great deal. I’ve spent 25 years in the plastics industry! I used to tell them that we’re not on the right side of this equation. People are going to start disliking plastics if we don’t figure out how to use them again. Unfortunately, I’ve been proven right as we haven’t grown recycling nearly quickly enough. When I first went into the plastics industry it was a cool material. How many people think plastics are cool today? But the plastics industry has got it wrong.

We’re finally getting there, and customers are saying, I need some of your stuff. The light bulb has turned on.

But it took twenty years to do it and plastics has suffered. People are suspicious that I’m saying that plastics are bad with some of the photos I show. It’s not the plastics – it’s how we manage our waste or, actually, mis-manage it.

In fact I’m saying plastics are fantastic. I wouldn’t have spent so much of my career working in this industry is I didn’t whole-heartedly believe that. It saves lives (perhaps mine when I had a very serious biking accident – fortunately with my plastics helmet protecting my head), saves fuel in our cars and planes and makes our life easier and more convenient. In short, I believe that the quality of life we live today would be impossible without plastics.

If we can make some big leaps in improving the way we manage this valuable resource, I believe that we can make plastics “cool” again!


Q6. Ray Mann, The Mann Organisation
Q I’d be very surprised if the pictures we’ve just seen of plastic waste in different countries didn’t make everyone very uncomfortable. It’s almost as if no one is acting on it. But it’s very important to understand that we do have this materials stream under control, although in the end what happens at a local authority level is that, through their waste management companies, they are able to trade these commodities in any way they feel fit providing its ‘legal’. Could you expand on that?

A. Yes that’s true. It’s just become clear to me recently that the government in the UK does have that under control, but legislation and enforcement are two different things. An example will make it clear. Japan has done a lot of analysis on plastics coming out of China and they found examples with traces of lead, cadmium, pcbs, flame retardants etc.

I don’t know what that means to you, but it’s something you wouldn’t want in your hair or brushing your teeth or in your child’s mouth (most toys in the world are made overseas and often with uncontrolled materials) at the levels they found. That’s because there’s no controls on what happens. Where do you think many of your plastics come from given that many of the products you buy come from “low cost” manufacturing areas? It comes from those people recycling them without the same controls as we require manufacturers here. So we’re experiencing the results of not managing that waste properly and we don’t even know it!

We don’t know what’s in ‘our stuff’ simply because we’ve lost control of ‘our stuff’. The message today is ‘let’s get back in control’. This will create jobs, it will create economic value, it’s going to keep us from sending it back and forth across the world and it’s about ensuring our products don’t have stuff in them that we don’t want. So there are a lot of reasons to take control of ‘our stuff’.


Q7. Russell Brown, Member of Parliament for Dumfries and Galloway.
Q We have a small manufacturing facility of agricultural waste plastics in my area and it was absolutely shocking to discover that in the region of 80/90% of waste from this country is ending up with children cleaning it in rivers in Asia. Some colleagues and I tried to help the company in my constituency to get ministers to understand that what we actually needed was a proper collection system similar to that that they have developed in Ireland. We made a breakthrough with some civil servants but when it hit the Department for BIS, it got nowhere.

We met a lack of cooperation and a lack of determination to push things through, I don’t know what problems you’ve had to get your facility up and running in Worksop, but all I would say is keep at it. There is support out there! I think the wider public want to see better collection of waste and there are some local authorities who are just not playing the game in this. Given the right receptacles to do doorstep recycling, the wider public want to do more. MBA Polymers met with BIS last week and have raised their concerns and have agreed to share data on the issues to improve recycling and waste management?

A. You raise a very good point about how we care about how our stuff is made. You will remember the 90’s and the sweatshop scandal and about how we just couldn’t believe our sportswear (and more recently Apple products) were being made in such appalling conditions in China. So these days we seem to care about how our stuff is made. But I can tell you that ‘un-making’ stuff is much more risky to humans. I see people washing plastics in the streets or rivers and some of the plastics have substances of concern in them that are released into the environment if not handled properly and if dumped into stream – we see the consequences. If we care about how our stuff is made and presumably we do, then the ‘unmaking of material’ is much more risky and therefore much more important to manage properly.

NH Thank you Mike and you for your contributions and your questions. This interaction has made this a great event. We have some very good ideas that we can take forward. I look forward to carrying on with some further meetings with Ed Davey, the Secretary of State, and others on what we can do to change the world.


And after the event...


Steve Toloken , China-based journalist with the American magazine Plastics News.
Q. I want to ask if MBA can elaborate on the following in your press release:..”we need a level playing field. We need auditing of ‘downstream’ overseas plastic waste processors, similar to domestic processors. We allow the export of plastics waste but it needs better and more vigorous enforcement and checking...

Is MBA referring to the lack of environmental controls on many plastics waste recyclers in China and elsewhere in Asia, similar to concerns raised by some pan-European recycling organizations? How is the playing field with overseas recyclers not level? What kind of auditing does MBA have in mind? Who would do the auditing? How does the lack of a level playing field with overseas waste processors hurt UK recycling? Could you elaborate?

A. To be clear, this is not a criticism of China nor the efforts recyclers in China make to recover materials, including plastics, from scrap and waste streams they receive from around the world. In fact, China continues to increase the requirements it places on domestic re cyclers and on the quality of scrap materials it will legally allow into the country.

It is more of a call to the regions of the world that ship scrap and recyclable materials to China and other parts of the world to:

1.Ensure that the exporters of these materials and their customers are obeying the laws and have met the requirements of the receiving countries, and...

2.That the exporting countries realize that we are exporting materials to developing countries that can pose risks to human and local eco-systems if not processed under the types of controls that are required of recyclers in the exporting countries...

Many seem to care how our stuff is made (for example the outrage years ago against sweat shops making clothes and more recently how electronics are being manufactured), but we seem to be less concerned about how our waste streams are handled and processed. Most developed countries (other than the US) have national regulations regarding the collection and handling of electronics, for example. However, the recycling of the materials derived from these end of life products can be more risky than dismantling or basic sorting. Material processing such as smelting or plastics recycling usually involve more intense processing that can pose risks to the people doing the recycling and local eco-systems if not carried out properly, yet because these materials are considered “commodities”, they are often traded with little or no monitoring or auditing.

Examples of how this might work can be seen with countries like Canada, which require electronics recyclers to audit downstream processors to ensure that the materials they recover and sell are being processed safely. These requirements are usually placed on the recyclers, who hire approved auditors.

You might find interesting a movie that will be released over Earth Day that talks about some of these issues. A short trailer can be viewed by going to this link and clicking on the arrow: http://www.trashedfilm.com


Brendan Palmer - Dravtec
Q
Congratulations on the event in Portcullis House. It certainly generated a lot of interest in the audience, hopefully those who are in a position to influence change will follow up in a positive way.

I have one question, prompted by the numerous media articles about the day and regarding the removal of VAT from recycled plastics. My understanding is that, if the material is used as part of a manufacturing process for a product that is then resold onwards, the VAT has no impact on the value proposition, because it is claimed back by the manufacturer. Is there something different in the treatment of recycled polymers?

A. The removal of VAT can be in a number of ways:

  1. No VAT on the sale of recycled plastic
    1. For most manufacturers there is no impact on the costs and therefore no incentive. It is a fact that, if a company is VAT registered they can reclaim the input VAT (offset against the output VAT on sales)
    2. Therefore no incentive to use recycled plastic is created if the VAT is removed from sales by MBA Polymers.
  2. No VAT or reduced VAT on the sale of recycled products
    1. If a consumer (or a business that is not VAT registered) uses a product that has significant recycled content, and there is reduced or no VAT on the product, then this creates an incentive to purchase the product because of the lower price.
    2. There is also an incentive for the manufacturer to use recycled material. The pre-VAT sales price for recycled Vs non-recycled alternative products could be higher if all the VAT reduction benefit is not passed on to the consumer, e.g: the sale of paint in recycled containers versus virgin plastic. Virgin: Sales price before VAT £100; Sales price including VAT = £120. Recycled: Sales price before VAT – could be sold at £110 and make £10 more margin, but would still give a win-win in terms of the demand and for the consumer.

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