As a new survey reveals that packaging waste is now the biggest environmental concern in the UK, Britain is poised to make a dramatic leap forward in its recycling efforts with the opening of the nation's first "closed loop" recycling plant.
The £13m facility in Dagenham, east London, will turn millions of used drinks bottles and sandwich wrappers made out of PET (polyethylene teraphthalate) back into "clean" wrapping.
According to the survey, by the communications company WPP, a quarter of UK adults now believe that the huge amounts of waste packaging that we are producing and failing to recycle is extremely worrying, compared with just 15 per cent who are worried to the same degree about the impact of greenhouse gases. This shift in public opinion has increased pressure on big companies and the Government to reduce the tons of waste consigned to landfill or exported for recycling every year.
Joan Ruddock, the environment minister, moved to address growing concern yesterday when she said: "My priority now is both to reduce excessive packaging and increase the recyclable content of essential packaging. The new plant will help accelerate progress and I'm confident more facilities will follow."
Supermarkets have also responded to growing public concern on the matter, with Tesco, M&S and Sainsbury's trying to reduce the amount of packaging they use. Asda, meanwhile, has launched a campaign for better recycling collections.
Some 1.2 million tonnes of mixed plastics from the UK – everything from salad bags to yoghurt pots and drinks bottles – end up as landfill every year.
The processes used in the new plant have been employed in Switzerland and Germany for over a decade. The plant can also process HDPE (high-density polyethylene), the super-tough plastic that milk bottles are made out of, producing pellets that can be turned back into fresh milk cartons.
"This is a massive step forward – the UK is really leading the way here" said Liz Goodwin of Wrap, an organisation which helps individuals, businesses and local authorities to reduce waste and recycle more.
Currently much of the UK's waste PET is shipped to plants in the Far East and China, before the recycled material is shipped back – pumping out tons of carbon along the way. It is estimated that food packaging currently accounts for between 5 and 10 per cent of each person's carbon footprint.
"Companies can't just steam along contrary to public opinion, and people want to know what it happening to our resources" said Chris Dow, an Australian environmentalist responsible for setting up the plant. According to Mr Dow, who made the Sydney 2000 Olympics "carbon neutral", the new system has obvious environmental benefits. "The idea behind closed loop is simple: we collect discarded packaging from waste management companies, offices, retailers, and turn them back into plastic suitable for food packaging," he said.
"There isn't the national infrastructure here that there is abroad. When you try and make improvements to the systems, people just say 'you can't recycle that!' and until now that has been true" Mr Dow said. "Commercially it makes sense. Companies used to make recycled products cheaper than their virgin equivalent, which sent the industry downwards, and devalued recycled products. I've no doubt closed loop will make money."
With the UK's recycling industry now worth £1.4m a year, and each ton of recycled PET worth £800, he might be right.