Thousands of tonnes of plastic left in recycling bins in Brighton and Hove ends up being burnt, according to a Brighton and Hove City Council report.
Much of the low-grade plastic contaminates lorry loads of recyclable plastic and the whole lot is then usually sent to the incinerator in Newhaven where it generates electricity for 25,000 homes.
Now the council is looking to add some lower-grade plastics – pots, tubs and trays – to the range of plastics that are already recycled.
The move is, in part, in response to rule changes being explored by the government.
Even after the changes, the council report said: “Residents may assume that all pots, tubs and trays placed in recycling bins will be recycled.
“The council must be clear that up to 70 per cent may not be recycled which may impact on public confidence.”
The report also said: “The mixed nature of the plastic material means that, depending on end markets, only 22 per cent to 39 per cent of the total would be regularly recycled.”
It added that, even after being collected and sorted, up to 78 per cent would be sent for “energy recovery” – council jargon for burning at the Newhaven incinerator.
The proposed changes – to include pots, tubs and trays among plastics collected for recycling – would require a £750,000 refit at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in Hollingdean.
The council estimated that the extra running costs would be about £80,000 a year and that it would generate tens of thousands of pounds of income from the sale of recyclable plastic.
One source of money would be a £1 million saving that council officials negotiated in contract talks with Veolia, which operates the Hollingdean site, in 2019.
And a year ago councillors ringfenced £470,000 to fund additional recycling measures, including the collection of more plastics.
The report said: “It is estimated that around 550 tonnes of pots, tubs and trays will be recycled per annum, increasing the recycling rate by 0.5 per cent.
“Sixteen thousand tonnes of recycling are currently handled by the MRF per annum.
“Recycling pots, tubs and trays will reduce the contamination level within wheelie bins and communal bins.
“Many residents place pots, tubs and trays in recycling bins as they believe they are recyclable.
“When recycling is contaminated, the contents of the whole bin and – in many cases – lorry load must be treated as waste and not recycled. This also has a disposal cost.”
The council report also highlighted concerns about the export of plastic waste. It said: “It is known that some pots, tubs and trays collected in the UK are still being exported and disposed of irresponsibly and damaging the environment in developing countries.
“While Veolia will provide a full audit trail, once these materials are sold on, they will not have control.
“As the markets are so volatile, there is a risk that some of our plastics could be exported and managed irresponsibly.”
The council report added: “A report by Greenpeace published in Unearthed in October 2018 stated an extensive quantity of plastic waste, bagged by several UK local authorities, was found on multiple sites in Malaysia.
“This plastic was being stored in conditions that rendered it largely impossible to recycle.
“A May 2019 report from Recoup stated 52 per cent of councils responding to a survey said they had experienced difficulties with plastics markets in recent months.
“The councils said they found good demand for sorted bottle grades such as clear PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and natural HDPE (high-density polyethylene) bottles.
“While the reports are a couple of years old, there is little evidence that this has changed.”
The council report added: “If ‘pots, tubs and trays’ become a core material within the Environment Bill, it is likely that this will drive innovation and, in the future, the markets for recycling pots, tubs and trays will improve.”
The council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee is due to decide next week whether officials should carry out a feasibility study into making the changes.
The virtual meeting of the committee is scheduled to start at 4pm on Tuesday (16 March) and should be webcast on the council website.
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