Back in day when disposable plastic was totally acceptable, when shops gave out plastics bags as a matter of course, straws were used with abandon, microplastics were the exfoliating ingredient in scrubs and toothpastes and everything from Q-tips to band aids were flushed down the toilet, very little thought was given to what happened with all these – and many, many more – products once their brief but useful life ended.
Packaging, bottles, wrappers – we took it all for granted and threw it all, without thinking, in the rubbish bin. Or worse, allowed it to disappear or ‘leak’ into the environment, creating unsightly litter and endangering wildlife.
That era of insouciance is now over.
The utter mess we have created, on land and in the oceans, combined with a growing awareness that non-renewable resources are depletable, increasing carbon emissions from waste incineration is undesirable and simply burying our plastic waste in landfill may banish it from sight, but not make it go away have resulted in a new appreciation for the role of plastics recyclers.
While recyclers have long operated on the margins of the plastics industry, increasingly, they are stepping into the limelight.
In fact, the recent change in public and policymakers’ attitudes to waste and recycling have been described as a ‘seismic shift’.
Demand for recycled materials has soared. It’s no coincidence that at least two major raw materials producers have jumped on the recycling bandwagon, partnering or acquiring recycling companies to ensure they are also ‘in the loop’.
Targets and ambitions are good. So is the EU’s vision of a circular economy, in which recyclers play a pivotal role.
To achieve this, however, much needs to be done to improve Europe’s waste recycling infrastructure. The plastics recycling industry is largely made up of small businesses, vulnerable to the price volatility characteristic of the recycled plastics market.
With far more recycling capacity needed to realise the EU’s ambitions in this area, investments are vital; but feasible for this sector only if supply and demand conditions become less volatile.
Getting these framework conditions right is imperative to create a stable market for recyclers to stay in the loop.