Manchester: How do you solve a problem like plastic? - a summary

By Ed McCue on 29/03/18 

It is often hard to quantify the sheer scale of our plastic problem that’s chocking the environment. An estimated 8.3bn tonnes of newly manufactured plastic had been produced globally by 2017, of which only 9 percent has been recycled. Roughly 12bn tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050 on current trends and around 9 million tonnes of plastic floods into our seas every year. Plastic in the ocean is likely to match the weight of fish by 2050.


To help combat Greater Manchester’s plastic problem, Dsposal hosted “Manchester: How do you solve a problem like plastic?” on the 15th March 2018. The event brought together experts from the Charitable, Public and Private sectors to have a debate and help to find the best way to tackle the issue. The event acknowledged the valuable roles that plastics play in our society and economy and explored how innovation and the circular economy can address the problem and reduce plastic waste and pollution.


Amanda Reid of Circular Economy Club Manchester and programme leader at the Waste to Resource Innovation Network of the Manchester Metropolitan University presented first. Explaining how recent research from the University of Manchester showed that the River Tame in Denton has the ‘worst level of microplastic pollution ever recorded’, Amanda argued the need for better and more sustainable water treatment, following concerns over microplastics contaminating drinking water.


Responsibility for plastic waste was questioned – who is responsible for our mess; manufacturers and producers, consumers, government and local councils or collection and reprocessing plants?


The simple answer is that it’s all our responsibility to end the war on plastics. But specifically, who pays? Or, how much do they pay? Should manufacturers pay more than the 10% of the cost of recycling that they currently do?


Does a vast demand for plastic products generate its production and supply - or is it the other way around? Does the production of the seemingly endless supply of plastic packaging and products in fact create its own demand, because of plastic suitability and convenience? Are products smothered in plastics being forced down our throats, or are we just not shopping smartly? Is it therefore the consumers or producers’ responsibility to dispose of their waste correctly?


Fiscal measures can be put in place to help combat this imbalance of incentives. Taxes or bottle deposit schemes can help to align consumer and producer incentives so that recycling and waste minimisation can be most effective. Amanda concluded by emphasising that we need to be “part of the solution, not the pollution”.


Ray Georgeson, CEO of Resource Association followed and spoke on a more macro scale. China no longer wants our plastic waste – a huge problem with potential economic and environmental issues. Before the ban, Britain shipped two thirds of its plastic waste to China. Rubbish is said to already building up at UK recycling plants, and the ban means that councils will be forced send most of this waste for incineration or landfill, until alternative markets are found.


However, it could present the UK with an opportunity to develop its existing infrastructure, waste collection units and reprocessing plants as the market adjusts. Reviving this green market could help embrace the circular economy.


On the other hand, our waste could simply be diverted to other developing countries in Southeast Asia or even Africa, in the longer term.


The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, made a welcome appearance at the event. He showed eagerness and enthusiasm for GM to aspire to be a leader for all things green. The economic opportunities arising from a greater sustainable ethos for the city were acknowledged, indirectly promoting the circular economy once again.


“We tend to only see the upfront cost and not appreciate the longer-term gains and savings from addressing plastic waste correctly”, said Burnham. This is, unfortunately, often the case with environmental related projects, as the monetary value yielded in the long term is difficult to measure – such as the benefit to our environment if plastic was eradicated from the oceans.  


The Mayor suggested an inclusive and driven bottom up approach if acting on plastics and climate change is to be successful. But investments and innovations from the top are just as critical. The end “goal” must be driven by us – the people, communities and businesses of Manchester, and not Government, proclaimed Andy. The Green Summit was a “tipping point” for change and the start of more “progress checks” for the city to be done.


A discussion panel of experts on the subject soon followed, hosted by Sophie Walker, Co-Founder of Dsposal. The panel included Mike Webster (CEO of WasteAid UK), Stephen Jenkinson (former CEO of Viridor Laing and honorary professor at MMU), Richard McKinlay (head of Circular Economy at Axion) and Ian Ferguson (Environment Manager at The Co-operative Group).


Although the UK and developed world can attempt to combat the plastic problem, 2 billion people in the developed and developing world don’t have access to waste collection services. Waste management is often poor in many Asian and African countries.


The argument of manufacturers versus consumers versus government in terms of waste disposal responsibility was reintroduced – multinational companies can do all they can to produce recyclable products, but some countries may not have the institutional capacity to approach a practical waste management system, and so people may not bother.


Plastics are vitally important and moves to combat one environmental problem may threaten any attempts to combat another. For example, the panel recognised how plastics play a vital role in reducing food waste, such as meats.


The panellists advocated the idea of a deposit return scheme. Recent news of a proposed bottle and can deposit return scheme in England therefore comes as good news. Consumers will soon have to pay a small deposit when they buy single-use glass and plastic bottles and steel and aluminium cans. People will then be able to get their money back if they return the container. Currently in the UK, 13 billion plastic bottles are sold every year, and 7.5billion of them are recycled.


Similar schemes in northern Europe have led to vast increases in the amount of plastic recycled – deposit prices range from 22p in Germany to 8p in Sweden.  A Norwegian scheme  has been most impressive – claiming a 94% recycling rate for bottles made from PET. Most schemes involve returning bottles to an automated collection point, or to the shop from which they were purchased.


The British Plastics Federation estimates it could cost £1bn to set up a scheme in the UK, and another £1bn a year in running costs. Although the initial costs seem large, the scheme may reduce the £778m that was spent on clearing plastic litter and enforcing laws in 2015-16.


Greater Manchester is committed to reducing plastic. Following the Green Summit last week, Andy Burnham committed to eradicating single-use plastics by 2020. The city is poised for a major crackdown on items such as party balloons, plastic straws and cutlery, single-use coffee cups and plastic bottles.


“It’s clear that we cannot just carry on as usual – the time has come for action,” said Mr Burnham. “If we’re successful in our efforts to drive down our use of single-use plastics and accelerate our ambitions for carbon neutrality, there’s no reason why similar models couldn’t be adopted across the UK.”


The UK has lagged behind the rest of Europe for far too long when it comes to recycling, but the past week has marked the beginning of a long road in cutting our plastic usage.