Author: Louise Connolly, senior scientist, RPS and materials manager, rx3 ‘Rethink, recycle, remake’ – or ‘rx3’ – is a Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government initiative (2008-2013) working to create end markets for recyclable materials in Ireland. The Government policy statement Delivering Change, published in 2002, identified one of the main barriers to an improved and sustainable recycling performance as the lack of stable and economically attractive markets and outlets for recyclable materials in Ireland. This policy was a key driver for the rx3 programme, which ran for five years. In order to improve the quality of recyclables for use in end markets and to support the circular economy, one of the final outputs produced by rx3 is a guidance document on the best practice management of recyclable plastics. The European Commission has recently published a number of plans and proposals to support the objective of Europe becoming a circular economy, which builds on the framework set out in the 2020 strategy Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe. Among the proposals in Towards a Circular Economy: A Zero Waste Programme for Europe are:

  • An increase in the target municipal waste preparing for reuse and recycling rate from 50% by 2020 to 70% by 2030;
  • A reuse and recycling rate of 80% for packaging waste by 2030; and
  • A ban on the landfill of recyclables such as biodegradable material, glass, metals, paper and plastic by 2025 with a view to near elimination of landfill by 2030.
A 30% increase in resource productivity by 2030, measured on the basis of GDP relative to raw material consumption, has also been suggested. A number of complementary initiatives have also been published, including the Green Employment Initiative, the Green Action Plan for SMEs and Resource Efficiency Opportunities in the Building Sector. Together, these comprise the future resource efficiency agenda for Europe. It is estimated that resource efficiency improvements in value chains could reduce material input needs by 17-24% by 2030 and a better use of resources could represent an overall savings potential of €630 billion per year for European industry. Resource productivity in the EU grew by 20% in the 2000-2011 period, a similar continued rate of increase will lead to increased GDP and a significant increase in green jobs (1). RESOURCE EFFICIENCY [caption id="attachment_15689" align="alignright" width="1944"] Green PET-bottle bales[/caption] The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has newly released the national resource efficiency strategy called Towards a Resource Efficient Ireland, which sets out priorities for preventing wastage and unnecessary consumption of materials, energy and water. In the context of Ireland, the transition to a circular economy will bring considerable opportunities in terms of jobs and economic activity, product innovation and design, and process and technology development. As additional materials will be removed from existing recovery and landfill disposal routes, for reuse and recycling, new ways of managing these materials and new end markets will be required. It will also bring added environmental benefits such as greenhouse gas and emissions reductions, decreased primary raw material, water, fuel and energy use. With increased resource scarcity, it also brings security of supply. However, in terms of recyclables, in order to capitalise on such opportunities, it is critical that high quality recyclables are extracted from the collection and sorting process. The reprocessing and end-market opportunities for plastic in Ireland have grown since 2002. Recycled plastic collection rates are increasing in Ireland and are expected to increase further in the coming years. The EPA National Waste Report (2) data shows that in 1995, some 394 tonnes of municipal plastic was collected for recycling and, in 2011, some 65,513 tonnes were collected for recycling. As collection rates increase, recyclate quality commonly deteriorates. The implementation of robust quality-control guidance will help to decouple this negative relationship. Recent industry data on contamination rates in the kerbside ‘green bin’ mixed dry recyclables collection indicates that contamination rates can be as high as 30% (3). This is beyond a tolerable level of contamination and affects the quality of the recyclables collected, which includes plastic. As most mixed dry recyclables collections in Ireland are of a co-mingled nature, it is essential that this level of contamination is reduced. These high levels of contamination are unsustainable. Currently, waste management companies are incurring the associated landfill cost and good quality recyclables are being contaminated, which results in reduced revenue. In some cases, these ‘higher value good quality’ recyclables are so badly contaminated that they too must be landfilled. Contamination and the quality of recyclables for mechanical recycling have been identified as a market barrier to the circular economy. There is a collective responsibility by regulators, waste collectors, compliance schemes and householders amongst others to deliver high quality recyclables. Corrective action is required to ensure customers are positioned to use their bin system appropriately. RECYCLED PLASTIC [caption id="attachment_15690" align="alignright" width="3888"] White low-density polyethylene pellets[/caption] Ireland has a reliance on the export market for reprocessing of recycled plastic. In 2011, some 74% of plastics collected for recycling were exported for reprocessing. Significant reprocessing capacity exists in Ireland, but the export market remains prevalent. The dominance of the export market has to date been due to spot pricing and a tolerance for lower quality material. Where the quality of Irish recycled plastic can be improved, maintained and be seen as ‘best in class’, then demand for the material is further guaranteed and its potential value increases. Many traditional export countries have enforced stricter rules and inspection regimes in recent years and are demanding higher quality imports. The Chinese authorities introduced the Green Fence initiative (4) in 2013, a programme which aimed to reduce the import of low quality recyclables or waste. With many of these export markets shrinking, it is becoming increasingly important to produce higher quality recyclables to trade on the Irish or export market. An rx3 study of plastic convertors/manufacturers in Ireland showed that there is interest in using recyclate in their operations; however, the quality of the recyclate is of primary importance to ensure the quality of their product. Plastic reprocessors in Ireland have also voiced the same opinion. The value of plastic recyclate as a resource is recognised by reprocessors and end users, but it is critical that all parties in the supply chain contribute to maintain the value of quality recyclable material. Financial and environmental cost savings can be made by using recycled materials for high-end applications and by avoiding the use of raw/virgin materials. The quality of recycled plastic can be affected at any stage along the collection and handling supply chain. However, it is critical that it is addressed at source. If plastic is not collected properly at the start of the chain, it then becomes increasingly difficult and costly to produce a quality end product for use in recycling. The guidance is aimed at improving the quality of recycled plastic to assist with securing end markets and maintaining a buoyant recycling industry in Ireland. The guidance looks at the different stages of the supply chain, customer and staff communications, the methods of collection and handling of plastics and recommends best practice techniques to assist the Irish recycled plastic sector improve and maintain the quality of recycled plastics through the value chain. The document should be used to assist in the design of a best practice quality control system and enable more plastic waste to be reprocessed and used in Ireland, and to improve the quality of plastics for export to meet more stringent quality standards. The guidance will assist in meeting end of waste criteria for waste plastic conversion being prepared by the European Commission, if adopted, and the Europe-wide recycled plastic certification scheme EuCertPlast. QUALITY AND DESIGN The best practice guidance document outlines the main drivers behind achieving a quality product and what needs to be done to produce a good quality recycled plastic output. The document focuses on five main steps in the supply chain: Sources, Collection, Transport, Processing and Output and suggests ways to handle recyclable plastic and manage the value chain in such a way that the quality of recyclable plastic can be maintained or improved. Quality management systems and end-of-life design and how they can be used to improve the quality of plastic are also addressed in the document. [caption id="attachment_15691" align="aligncenter" width="919"] The five main steps in the plastic reycling supply chain[/caption] The guide is intended for use by industry to improve the quality of plastic grades, both for use in Ireland and export markets. It is anticipated that the national implementation of the best practice guidance will promote Ireland as a producer of quality plastic grades in the global context. Below is a list of some of the most important factors that affect recyclable plastic quality:
  • Source of material;
  • Good operational procedures;
  • Awareness/training;
  • Signage;
  • Materials accepted;
  • Consistency in communications/messages;
  • Bin types and collection frequency;
  • Rejection procedures and enforcement;
  • Planning and maintenance;
  • Vehicle cleanliness;
  • Optimal materials recovery facility/processing conditions;
  • Degree of sorting and separation;
  • Quality management system;
  • Product end of life design.
For further information on the Waste Plastic Management Best Practice Guidance Document, please click here or go to Louise Connolly is a senior scientist in RPS and was the materials manager in rx3, an award-winning, Government-funded programme working to create markets for recyclable materials in Ireland. References:  (1) Accessed on 10/07/2014 (2) Accessed on 10/07/2014 (3) Nappies, food, dead dogs found in recycling bins, Irish Times 27/05/2013. Accessed on 18/06/2013 at Also see presentation by John Dunne from Panda at the 2012 National Waste Summit, Croke Park (4) Accessed on 10/07/2014