The problem with plastic clays

Kate Gatacre investigates how the shooting community is meeting the challenge of environmental responsibility.

You’d have to have stuck your head very deep in the sand to be unaware of the issue of single-use plastics and the effect they have on the environment. Most shooters are acutely aware of it in the light of the current pressures on their sport.

Lead shot is all too frequently in the limelight, as are the other raw materials that go into making cartridges and clays. So if we can improve on one aspect of the problem, the mountains upon mountains of empty plastic cartridges, shouldn’t we be doing something about it?

In fact, some within the shooting community have already been quietly playing their part in doing so – so quietly, in fact, that many are not even aware that there is any recycling of shotgun cartridges.

But the news is spreading, as witnessed by Agri-Cycle, which now recycles between 150 and 170 million cartridges a year. That’s a start, but there are still too many shooters and shooting grounds not recycling their empties.

Agri-Cycle, founded by Lincolnshire farmer Robert Moore in 2004, has been recycling plastic cartridges since 2009. As Robert explains, the process is simple: “We can process any cartridge types, whether paper or plastic, and even the odd live cartridge isn’t a problem.

“The cartridges are first sorted before being shredded. The metal is then extracted using magnets and the plastic granulated. Once the plastic is granulated, it can be used in other products – in the case of cartridge plastic, it goes to a pipe manufacturer in the UK, while the metal is sent to a scrap merchant for blending.”

Cartridges can seem like the archetypal case of ‘fire and forget’, but single use plastics are a problem that can’t be ignored

The cost isn’t prohibitive – particularly if you can deliver the cartridges to Agri-Cycle with gate fee per cartridge as low as 0.001p – which works out at £200 per two million cartridges. For shooting schools, there are plenty of options for delivery or collection – particularly if the ground stocks Laporte clays.

Laporte started working with Agri-Cycle at the very beginning, in 2009, after UK director Gaylia Fallon met up with Robert Moore. “The moment I heard that Robert was recycling cartridges, I knew I wanted to get involved,” says Gaylia.

“We agreed that we’d collect the cartridges for recycling from any shooting grounds that we supply with clays. The initial take-up wasn’t bad, but it hasn’t grown much, which is disappointing. Around a quarter of the shooting grounds we deliver clays to are sending empties back with us.

“I know margins are very tight for shooting grounds and it is an extra cost, but it’s a really important step towards improving the environmental credentials of shooting.”

Gaylia says that recycling our empties is a moral imperative. “We in the industry need to change our attitude on it,” she explains. “What Agri-Cycle does is beneficial to everyone.”

Gaylia is hoping to meet with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) soon to see if they can work together to expand the recycling effort.

Gaylia Fallon explains how Laporte supports Agri-Cycle’s project by helping to collect used cartridges for recycling

One of the shooting grounds that sends empties directly to Agri-Cycle is High Lodge, Suffolk. Like Gaylia, John Bidwell met Robert in 2009, and immediately signed up to his scheme.

“We used to put our empties in a skip, but this is much better. It’s a lot of work – we send around 36 bags every three months. We also collect all the plastic wads using a leafblower and recycle those too. I think a lot of shooters don’t realise how much waste is generated from their round of clays: the cartridge casings, the wads, the cardboard boxes.

“There’s a huge amount of rubbish generated, and I feel strongly that if we can recycle some of it, we should. I don’t know if grounds are simply throwing away cartridges or burning them illegally, but I think people should think twice about how they deal with their rubbish.”

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation is also a strong proponent of the recycling system with Agri-Cycle, encouraging its members to sign up. 

Director of conservation, Caroline Bedell, explains: “There is no doubt that single use plastics are an environmental issue firmly on the government’s agenda. Government policy on single use plastics is to reduce, reuse and recycle.

“With some uses, such as packaging, in order to drive change they are looking at imposing tax on the use of single use plastics. Whilst reduce and reuse are difficult options all shooters have the ability to recycle their used cartridges.

“BASC is therefore encouraging all shooters to ensure used cartridges are recycled and the best placed opportunity for recycling is to use Agri-Cycle, who have the facilities and capacity to recycle the UK cartridges.”

BASC’s Caroline Beddell emphasises the need for shooters to develop good habits ahead of single use plastic legislation

Of course, the Gun Trade Association is also a supporter of recycling. “Who wouldn’t be in this day and age?” asks GTA director Simon West. “We cannot, as an industry, ignore the issue any longer. A huge number of game shooters have already switched to fibre wads and many grounds are now insisting on them, too.

“I would say that by and large, game shooters or the game shoots pick up their empties. It’s time we all did our part. As an industry we are always trying to innovate to solve environmental challenges.”

So, what does the future hold for shooting and its use of plastics? We spoke to David Thompson of Eley Hawk to find out what cartridge companies are working towards. Eley has recently released a cartridge with a biodegradable wad, which is primarily, David says, used by waterfowl shooters: “Currently, the biodegradable wad is only suitable for steel shot, and as very few shooting grounds in the UK allow steel shot, it isn’t really something that clay shooters would use here.

“However, it is proving popular in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, where steel shot is much more widely used.”

Safe, recycled plastic cartridges still need a great deal of research to become a reality according to David Thompson of Eley Hawk

And what about using recycled plastic to make the cartridges?

“I’d be really keen to see if this was possible,” David says, “but we need very clean plastic to form the tubes properly, and we have yet to find a source of recycled plastic that reaches the standards we need.”

Eley does of course make paper cartridges, but these are aimed primarily at the game shooting market, says David. Paper cases present a few problems of their own: they are more expensive to produce and more prone to breakage in production.

Might there be an altogether biodegradable solution in the future? It’s something David likes the idea of, but he explains: “Currently we do not have that solution. Because a cartridge contains primers with explosive paste and powder that burns to create at least 740Bar of pressure, we are very limited in what materials we use and so we are some way off creating a biodegradable cartridge case.

“The mantra for being eco-friendly is ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’. Obviously reducing consumption is less of an option, and, while the US has a strong reloading culture, we don’t.

“That leaves recycling – and all our cases are made of fully recyclable, high density polyethylene. Agri-Ccycle are an ideal choice to get spent cases and wads recycled.”

So it seems that alternatives to plastic cartridges are a way off – as is the use of recycled plastics to make cartridges. In the meantime, however, the shooting community can improve matters by recycling their empty cartridge cases – and ensuring that the sport has the green credentials to safeguard its future.

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