recycling, Research

Where to recycle plastic #3: National collection schemes

I got quite excited when I heard that there were people making a business out of going round collecting surplus plastic pots from garden centres.

What a great match. Manufacturer seeking recycled plastic to make stuff seeks garden centre with customers looking to get rid of plastic mountain: everyone’s a winner.

Except…. as it turns out, it’s not that easy.

There are two main companies who have tried this, as far as I can see: and both have come unstuck.

Ashortwalk is a Cornish company (the name comes from the fact that it is “a short walk” from the sea), founded in 2003 by ex Dyson designer Daniel Dicker. It is the company behind recycled plastic Ecopots and also makes recycled plastic plant labels, plant holders, bird feeders, sundials, house numbers. Recycling depends on people actually buying the recycled products too, so i would urge you to take a look at what’s on offer – a lot of it is really very funky stuff.

It didn’t take Dan long to realise there was a massive unused resource sitting about in garden sheds which he could tap into. We all see our garden pots as a nuisance; Dan sees them as raw material.

“Old plastic plant pots are not collected,” he says. “They have no value. They are light, but shipping is expensive; they are just not viable for recycling. But, if you create a product that uses them… well now it is financially viable to recycle this product.”

So he set up another company, Pot to Product, to collect this resource. The idea is that garden centres sign up, customers offload their plastic pot surplus to the garden centre, and Pot to Product comes along to pick them all up and take them to Cornwall and turn them into more pots, bird tables, plant labels and sundials.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, global economics has put its great clumsy boot in it and kicked it all to smithereens. I spoke to Chris at Ashortwalk, who told me the value of recycled plastic is at an all-time low, just at the time when the cost of diesel to transport it from garden centres to Cornwall has risen to an all-time high. It is, quite simply, more expensive to collect it than the recycled plastic is worth.

He said China’s recent decision to stop taking in the world’s rubbish has played a part too: labour costs in China are low, so they can afford to sort the many different kinds of plastic you get in garden pots and trays. UK labour costs are (relatively) high: sending the price of collecting, sorting and recycling garden plastic up even further.

Officially, the scheme is ‘suspended’: but it will take some fairly major economic upheaval to change the maths.

The other company that has dabbled with the idea of collecting plastic pots for recycling is Axion Recycling, a Manchester-based company which specialises in turning the steady stream of waste we pour out of our homes and lives into new stuff. Mainly, they recycle cars; but in 2011 they trialled collecting and recycling plastic plant pots. The scheme was along the same lines as Pot to Product: they teamed up with garden centres across the North of England and went round collecting surplus plant pots to take back to the recycling depot. It seems to have been short-lived: I can find no reference to it beyond 2011, and I haven’t (yet) been able to find anyone in Axion who can let me know how it went. I suspect it may have fallen foul of the same problem: the economics simply don’t stack up.

And that’s it. National schemes are just too difficult to be a practical solution. So the only option for our poor garden centres is to go to the trouble of setting up their own bespoke deal with a nearby plastics recycling centre (if they are fortunate enough to have such a thing) to collect customer’s pots. It’s not impossible, and some have – the garden centre in the previous post, for example.

But it’s hardly core business for garden centres, and it’s a problem not of their making in any case. So it seems unfair to demand that they.pour resources into recycling: better, surely, to put those resources into pressuring their wholesalers to use recycled (at least) or biodegradable (ideally) pots instead.

Back to the drawing board, then. Next solution: passing it on…

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