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Home » Knowledge » Case Studies » SW Region Plastics Scoping Study

SW Region Plastics Scoping Study

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Executive Summary

This report is a scoping study to capture the South West Region manufacturing sector’s use of plastics and to understand the current and possible future demand for greater use of recycled plastics. The information found in the report and accompanying databases can be used as an information source for the Regional Development Agency to assess any future policy and support initiatives that may be required to help the Region develop economic, business, employment and social benefits arising from the use and recovery of plastic materials.

This is a complex market to engage as plastics are used over a wide range of industrial sectors and application levels within each sector in a plethora of specifications and quantities.

To reveal and explore the regional business make-up, a SW Region-Polymer database was created sourcing information from SWRDA (MINT database), SWMAS, NISP, Envirowise and WRAP. The database was used to identify manufacturers with the highest capacity to use plastics within sectors. This was used to design two surveys. The first was to map plastics user companies to capture baseline information on their operations related to plastic use. Waste and recycling companies were separately surveyed to understand the types and quantities of plastic being recovered within the Region.

The survey revealed the SW Region has a number of opportunities to increase its recovered polymer use. Although the region may not possess the capacity of the more industrial regions with strong legacy investment in plastics, such as the South East and North West, there are still significant plastics manufacturing and user sectors requiring plastics. The market dynamics are changing for each sector and many of the problems facing the SW Region are national issues. Manufacturers of plastic products such as packaging, and mouldings used in electrical and electronics are generally moving to the Far East where cheap labour makes for extremely competitive markets. Similar issues are facing waste companies competing for waste plastics. The commodity packaging plastics markets are more mature and are likely to prove difficult to infiltrate. However, there are a number of options for the growing but embryonic high value
plastic waste stream markets which are driven by regulation and green procurement alongside potential cost savings – this is particularly true of the higher value engineering and high performance thermoplastics polymers.

The declining electrical and electronics sectors has a very low use of plastics as most companies in the Region specialise in the production of high value integrated electronic devices and processors and populated printed circuit boards as opposed to Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) manufacturing of complete electronic equipment. Opportunities to supply and use recycled plastics do not exist in this sector. However, an opportunity does exist in the Region to develop high added value collection and reprocessing of engineering thermoplastics arising from Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) products.

The aerospace and aircraft industry is an important sector in the region but its manufacturing is primarily built on composite based materials and it has a record of not using recyclates, although there is opportunity to research this area in more depth. However, future opportunities exist when Producer Responsibility Obligations (PRO) are applied to the sector – this is expected within the next 5 years and the arising waste plastics and composites could make use of capacity already established for WEEE materials processing.

Automotive is a promising area as car manufacturers are competing for customers over environmental issues, and there is already legislation in place for End of Life Vehicles (ELVs) which could promote more closed loop recycling opportunities led by large international OEMs. With manufacturers looking for ISO 14001 accreditation it is an area that could produce opportunities for more selective recovery and use of recycled plastics.

The food sector is also a promising candidate given the concentration of dairy producers and packers in the SW Region and the arrival of new technologies that can produce reliable foodgrade plastics packaging recyclates which are accepted alternatives to virgin food grade
materials. The relevant higher value materials are PET and HDPE as both command a high price in competition with high value virgin materials. When aligned with the consumer supermarket push for recycled content in packaging, this offers a good opportunity for a form of closed loop recycling operation, which could be encouraged to take place within the Region.

The construction sector in the SW Region contains a couple of large manufacturers of plastic construction products such as PVC-U window frames and clad aluminium conservatories, soffit and facia boarding, guttering and piping. There is an opportunity to increase plastic recycling for this sector within the Region whilst recognising that some of these operations may be nationally coordinated.

The ability of the Region to enhance its supply and use of recycled plastics is not a simple matter, as Regional economic development does not always align with commercial needs and investment criteria.

SW Region waste companies, recyclers and reprocessors feel the Region requires more education and awareness raising so that relationships with local recyclers can be established to stop waste being sent to landfill or more commonly to the Far East. Information sources and support for trials would also help waste companies expand and trial new technologies required to produce high quality plastic recyclates. New EU Directives such as WEEE and ELV offer the opportunity for the Region to produce high value added engineering thermoplastic waste streams with comparably higher skilled labour, particularly when this is linked with the growing asset and resource management sector.

Actions to promote the development of a high value plastics recycling industrial base with scalable capacity in the SW Region should be considered as the national and international market demand for quality high value recycled plastics exists, is growing, and will continue to be driven by European and national regulation, green procurement policies in the private and public sector and by public pressure.

More work is required to quantify the potential economic development benefits of these suggested actions, but conservatively the Region has an opportunity to create a £100M p.a. high value plastics recycling industry with the potential to employ upwards of 500 to 1,000 people. This could initially service food packaging, WEEE and ELV waste streams but it will also provide industrial infrastructure and expertise that could service future plastics waste processing needs arising from the construction, aerospace and marine sectors.

The resulting sustainability benefits will also need to be assessed but in general these are considered to be significant to the Region and beneficial to neighbouring regions through the importing of waste plastics to the SW Region.