According to the plastic packaging organisation Valuplast, the UK produces just under two million tonnes of plastic packaging waste annually. Valuplast's recovery target for 1998 is 124,000 tonnes, up from 100,000 last year.
By 2001, the plastics sector will need to recycle 320,000 tonnes if it is to comply with the statutory 16% minimum recycling target.
The market-based approach of the UK packaging regulations is designed to boost recovery of packaging materials by requiring obligated businesses and compliance schemes to pay reprocessors for packaging recovery notes (PRNs) or other documentation which demonstrates that recovery has taken place. These funds, so the theory goes, will then be invested by the reprocessors in new capacity and in collection schemes.
Exporting waste for reprocessing is permitted under the regulations, and is taking place for all the main packaging materials except aluminium. Exports of plastics waste are a particular cause for concern because they may divert attention from the huge increase in domestic recycling infrastructure needed in the UK. There are also wider concerns over long transport distances and whether exported materials are being reprocessed properly and safely.
However, the high price of PRNs for plastics recycling - £145/tonne compared with £20-35 for other materials - makes it particularly attractive to investigate export opportunities.
This year, Wastepack has been the only compliance scheme to acquire compliance evidence for plastics packaging from overseas reprocessors, obtaining evidence for 4,000 tonnes reprocessed in China, 2,000 tonnes in France and 40 tonnes in Germany. The scheme says that the low cost of its plastics PRNs helped its members to meet their legal obligations for 1997 at a fraction of the cost paid by other companies, most of which belong to the biggest compliance scheme, Valpak.
In response, Valpak has said it is seriously considering signing contracts with overseas plastics reprocessors in order to reduce its members' costs.
The Environment Agency believes that plastics waste exports may increase "dramatically" next year when supermarkets begin to recover larger volumes of backdoor shrink wrap. It also says that "several" compliance schemes are actively looking at overseas sources of compliance evidence.
This year, the Agency estimates that up to 20,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste - mainly film - have been exported, "predominantly to India and China", but also to Pakistan. One Indian reprocessor, Sateguru Polyfab, has even registered as an accredited reprocessor, and SEPA officials may travel to China to inspect the reprocessor whose evidence of recycling is being used by Wastepack.
Valuplast's Chief Executive, Brian Smith, says there is sufficient reprocessing capacity in the UK, but if costs are lower abroad then obligated businesses are bound to investigate. "I'm not concerned Valpak is seeking evidence of compliance through exports, provided exporters can supply the appropriate evidence - it's a free market."
But UK reprocessors are disgruntled. Alan Davey, General Manager of Linpac Plastics Recycling - one of some 20 plastics reprocessors to sign contracts with Valpak last year - questioned the environmental and health record of Asian reprocessors and warned that their activities could hinder the growth of plastics recycling in the UK.
"Although we don't reprocess film, which is the main export, it still softens demand for PRNs," he told ENDS, "and it won't help get prices up to a level that will fund domestic collections."
Meanwhile, the Agency has changed its policy on accreditation of overseas reprocessors. In June, its Producer Responsibility Registration Unit Manager, Peter Gaffney, said that they should be allowed to register as PRN issuers because exporters were finding it difficult to gather material without being able to guarantee the deliverers PRNs. And for some materials, such as contaminated plastic film, overseas reprocessors were likely to be the only way to get the material recycled because the process is so labour intensive.
But the Agency has now asked the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is finalising its review of the packaging regulations, to allow exporters to issue "export recovery notes" provided they obtain evidence from the reprocessor that recycling has actually taken place. If, as expected, its proposals are accepted, the five overseas reprocessors which have already registered - Sateguru, PET recycling facilities in Ireland and the Netherlands, a French paper recycler and an Irish glass recycler - will not have their accreditation renewed in January.