New research by Viridor finds £1bn investment in recycling would end UK plastic exports as plastic collected for recycling is forecast to increase by 45% by 2035

New independent research conducted by global sustainability activator Anthesis and commissioned by Viridor, has revealed the amount of plastic packaging ending up in household recycling bins is set to increase by 45% by 2035.
New research by Viridor finds £1bn investment in recycling would end UK plastic exports as plastic collected for recycling is forecast to increase by 45% by 2035

The research finds that:

  • New investment would create over 2,000 permanent green economy jobs and thousands more construction jobs
  • All regions of the UK would benefit. The North West would see the highest levels of investment and jobs, with the South East, South West and Wales, all seeing substantial benefits.
  • The UK already exports 500,000 tonnes of waste plastic for recycling – the same weight as 870 Airbus A380 aircraft. Without new investment, the UK’s plastics recycling infrastructure shortfall could reach 1.6 million tonnes by 2035, driving up exports of waste plastic
  • Short-term recycling contracts and price volatility revealed as significant investment barriers that government recycling policy must address

The UK already lacks sufficient recycling infrastructure and exports 0.5Mt of waste plastic for recycling every year. Without additional investment, this infrastructure gap will increase to 1Mt per year for sorting and 0.645Mt per year for reprocessing plastic by 2035, increasing exports of waste plastic and losing valuable material from the UK economy. 

The research, Bridging the Gap: Ending the UK’s Reliance on Plastic Waste Export, found that fully recycling all of this material back to raw materials in the UK represents a £1bn investment opportunity to build new plastics sorting and reprocessing facilities. This investment could deliver an extra 46 industrial facilities across all regions of the UK, create 1,100 permanent skilled green jobs and a further 975 in the supply chain, and deliver economic benefits of over £3 billion across 25 years.

All regions of the UK would benefit from investment, through new jobs and economic growth, and would support the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. In particular, the North West would benefit the most, with an opportunity for £400m of investment across 15 facilities, creating 420 jobs and deliver local economic benefits of £1 billion across 25 years.

Through one-to-one interviews, the research by Anthesis identified significant interest but also substantial barriers to investment in the recycling sector. Investors highlighted a number of risks undermining the investment case for new recycling facilities, including price volatility in markets for recycled plastics and short-term contracts in the recycling sector.

Long-term contracts of at least 10 years are needed to create the stable revenues necessary to deliver multi-million pound investment.  Currently, the sector has contracts length of only 3-5 years on average.

Around 2.3Mt of plastic packaging is currently used in the UK of which only 54% (1.3Mt) is collected for recycling. The research estimates that the amount of plastic packaging collected for recycling is expected to increase by as much as 45% by 2035, to 1.8–1.9Mt per year. This increase will be driven by policy reforms designed to drive up stagnating recycling rates. 

Anna Brockhaus, Consultant at Anthesis, commented, “Our research shows how investment in high quality plastics recycling infrastructure is not only critical to drive down waste and carbon emissions, but that this could also unlock economic benefits across the UK. We are at a pivotal point for both resource use and reducing emissions, and the opportunities identified in this research are key to creating a more sustainable world.”

Dr. Tim Rotheray, Director of ESG at Viridor said: “When people put out their plastic recycling each week, they expect that material to be recycled in the UK. Ending plastic waste export is not only the right thing to do but also a major employment opportunity across the UK. New policy could unlock up to £1 billion in new industrial facilities up and down the country. Businesses are ready to invest and policy reforms have the potential to address the barriers identified in this report, while putting the UK on track for a circular plastics economy.”