Second Life Plastics was set up by film producer British Polythene Industries (BPI) in 1990 to collect used agricultural sheeting. At that time, the practice of burning or burying waste film was coming under increasing scrutiny. BPI has since been making a loss on the operation and has been trying to get other film producers to chip in support funds.
BPI is paying £120-130 per tonne for waste collected from UK farms. However, it says that it is still importing better quality waste from Germany at £60 per tonne - despite the German Government's promised ban on exports of plastic packaging waste (ENDS Report 225, p 14 ).
BPI says that the breakthrough in getting its competitors on board followed a threat to the Department of the Environment (DoE) that it would switch entirely to cheap German waste and end the Second Life Plastics scheme. The DoE put pressure on the rest of the industry through the Packaging and Industrial Films Association (PIFA) to support the scheme. According to PIFA's Jim Pugh, agreement has now been reached in principle for all producers of agricultural film to support an industry-owned Second Life Plastics.
The proposed scheme is voluntary, raising the problems of free riders and of securing the involvement of importers. These issues have yet to be resolved, although Mr Pugh expects a solution in the next few weeks as BPI's financial support runs out.
About £400,000 will be needed to fund the existing collection infrastructure and enable UK waste to be sold at the same price as German waste. This represents about £10 per tonne of film sold to the agricultural sector. BPI, the only UK reprocessor, says that it would take UK waste for £50-60 per tonne - half its current price - but only up to its existing reprocessing capacity of 4,500 tonnes.
BPI's Jack Patton says that the firm's capacity will continue to expand, but other companies will also have to invest in reprocessing facilities and find markets for the recycled materials. The industry could easily collect 20,000 tonnes of used agricultural sheeting each year, he believes, but finding outlets for this remains a problem.
One of the major markets - refuse sacks bought by local authorities - is partly closed to recycled plastics. Half of the users opt for a specification that allows only virgin film. A market of about 15-20,000 tonnes per year could easily open up, says Mr Patton, if councils changed to a specification based on fitness for purpose where the costs of virgin and recycled grades are the same. Alternatively, the specification itself could be amended by the British Standards Institution.