Over the centuries, markets for products have developed from demand and supply. It is a simple concept. Somebody wants something and another person supplies it. However, in today’s ‘environmentally-friendly’ age, politicians are desperately trying to create a market for recycled materials, as reported by PRW.
Recycling is an age-old concept and even Romans reclaimed and recovered metal to sell. The issue is not as much about recycling as it is about market forces and today’s disposable society. It must not be forgotten that many of the reclaimed materials, such as metal, have been successfully recycled and traded for hundreds of years, but there is now a batch of materials that have no natural recycling market.
The standard way to handle post-consumer waste is to collect pre-sorted materials (eg a mix of metal, glass, plastic and paper), transport this to a Materials Reclamation Facility (MRF) and then separate those materials. Separation occurs by hand by pickers and mechanically (eg ferrous metal is recovered using Magnetic Separators and non-ferrous metal are recovered using Eddy Current Separators). There are companies who want to purchase the metals, but what about the other materials?
Glass is another material that has been recycled for years (Note: the milk bottle in the UK was one of the most successful reuses of a material that has now all but disappeared) and the process is proven and is very successful. Sadly, there is little value to the recovered glass, but there is an outlet.
There used to be a market for second hand paper with small businesses collecting paper on the streets in the 1980s. Such a market no longer exists. Recovered paper is used to produce many different products, but the actual value of the recovered paper is minimal.
Plastic is a problem. The way plastic containers are made means that often they contain different types of plastic that make it almost impossible to recycle. It has a high calorific value and so is ideal to burn, but many do not deem this to be ‘environmentally-friendly’. It is used to produce some plastic products (eg benches) but there are only so many of these that can be manufactured. And, there is no true value for this reclaimed plastic.
By going back to the initial statement that markets develop from supply and demand, then there are serious issues regarding the viability of recycling specific materials. The politicians believe that by imposing targets and fines, then this will create a market, but will that really be the case? Technology and a desire to use reclaimed materials such as plastics will create the market, not politicians. If companies producing plastic materials fail to develop techniques and processes to use recovered plastics and also change the design of the plastic products to enable easier recycling, then the real market for the product will not exist. In mid September, the UK’s largest waste and recycling exhibition RWM is being held at the NEC in Birmingham and it will be interesting to see how many politicians who are proposing and implementing these new recycling initiatives will be present. By speaking with primary producers, recyclers and equipment suppliers, maybe they will gain a better understanding of the challenges.
In essence, maybe the politicians need to rethink the strategy.