About 50 people attended the public meeting following the Annual General Meeting of EMERGE on Nov 24th 2011. The expertise and breadth of knowledge of the speakers was impressive and all I can do here is give a very brief overview of what the speakers covered. The speakers were followed by a very lively discussion. There was a good deal of agreement between the speakers on some fundamental issues. We need plastic as a material but we don't value it as a limited resource. We need to use less to reduce the amount of oil used and make sure all plastics are recycled by designing in recyclability, and making it easier for the public to recycle all plastics.
Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager at Coop Food, began the meeting by stressing the importance of plastic packaging, how useful a material it is to prevent food waste. It is not a question of getting rid of plastic, it is how to use it more wisely. Only 3% of food in the UK is lost before getting to a shop as compared with 50% in the developing world. Customer perception of packaging is skewed, plastic is bad, other materials like glass are good, but glass bottles use large amounts of energy to produce. Plastic is very recyclable in principle though many things can get in the way of it happening. See his slideshow below.
Stuart Foster from RECOUP explained how the rate of recycling of plastic has increased dramatically since the 1990s, from 1% to 48.5% now, and is projected to keep on growing. To maintain this progress we need to invest in new and creative ideas to encourage the public to value plastic and to recycle it. Switzerland uses virtually all plastic through either recycling or energy recovery. Bioplastics have been developed that degrade but this way the plastic is lost rather than recycled. On the other hand bioplastics can be made from plants and some leading companies are now adopting this technology. Though the infrastructure for plastic bottle recycling is there we need to develop the infrastructure for non-bottle plastics. Apologies we don't have permission to put up his slideshow on the website.
Nick Cliffe from Closed Loop Recycling gave an insight into the complexities of the recycling process. Anything can be recycled but you need expensive hand sorting or complicated technology if the plastic types are mixed or bonded with other materials. Plastic films are particularly difficult to handle. The ideal is to have streams of packaging made from single plastics, PET and HDPE are straightforward to melt down and reuse. New technologies for sorting are replacing human labour as they are cheaper, including infra-red spectroscopy, pattern recognition (recognising shapes of bottles), and flake sorting (milling the plastic into small flakes that are then identified through lasar spectroscopy). One idea that should be considered is marking plastic packaging with machine readable codes or chemical markers to aid sorting. See his slideshow below.