To create this required paradigm shift we need to be asking entirely new questions. What will a pack’s end-of-life be? We shouldn’t even start to give it shape until we know. How can we simplify packaging to enhance recycling capacities? We can’t define increased collection until we tackle this. Is the bin as we know it the best system? Probably not, we have just grown used to a model that focuses on discarding rather than recycling. Before long new innovations will emerge as Extended Producer Responsibility is rolled out in various countries requiring producers to pay for the full cost of waste.
And the hard questions need to be asked…. Are brightly coloured bottles the only way a brand can tell their differentiated story? Is a tethered cap going to stop consumers enjoying their drink? Will a simplified pack lose its on-shelf impact? Does it really matter? We have a planet to save. A planet that is currently using three planets’ worth of resources.
Banning plastic is not the answer. In the same year we are estimated to hit the 400 million tpa mark our global population will have reached 9.2 billion people - if we are to feed everyone we also need to address the pressing issue of food waste. As it stands we waste 35% of food annually - plastic can drastically reduce this. And so we have a careful balancing act to perform that requires our honing our focus on managing plastic in a way it has never been managed before - as a resource rather than waste.
Every facet of plastic’s impact on our lives and the planet needs to be reviewed. From how we produce it, shape it and use it to how we collect, recycle, reuse and deal with the unrecyclable.
And we need to take this to a global level.
Global guiding practices for recycling
Those countries lagging behind on their recycling infrastructure will need help to catch up. According to Greenpeace Russia produces about 60 million tonnes of waste annually of which a mere 7 to 8% gets recycled. The Balkans has trash islands surfacing and vast swathes of the US still suffers a paucity of recycling mechanisms.
Even those countries that boast a strong recycling culture, such as the UK, are still hampered by disparate recycling schemes across the nation. Policy makers are often mis-guided and information relating to best practices is frequently misleading and ill-researched.
What is needed is a global shift driven by a strong set of guiding practices to start harmonising the recycling ecosystems across entire countries, not just sporadically.
We also need everyone to be genuinely onboard - and this starts with the major brands.
Building the kind of green economy the BPF envisions requires both simple and cutting edge technology to unlock the potential built into plastics materials. Exploring unrealistic solutions such as a paper bottle for carbonated beverages boils down to corporate greenwashing that wastes precious time and resources and leads to an obvious dead end whilst confusing much of the public.
A far more effective scenario is to focus single-mindedly on creating a circular economy that is commercially viable and that directly solves our growing post-consumer plastic waste crisis.
According to the BPF’s report, if all plastic were recycled globally this could result in mean annual savings of 30 to 150 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to shutting between 8 and 40 coal-fired power plants globally.
The good news is that this is achievable. Of course it will require closing the loop on plastics of all types, not just bottles, but especially the awkward to recycle plastics such as films, pots, tubs and trays. Another reason why we don’t want to add categories to the recycling stream.
It will also require organisations to have end-of-life strategies for the plastics they put onto the market which will mean the introduction of new technology and deliberate design for circular economy recycling.
Government legislation is also stepping in, and we need to continue driving forward, regardless of the current tougher economic situation or the fact that we are going to overshoot our 2025 climate change target It is time to ramp everything up and face the facts.
As Phillip Law, Director General at the BPF, points out there is (huge) scope for innovation in product design, collection, sorting, mechanical and chemical recycling. He is referring to the kind of innovation that strives to resolve our current challenges rather than pander to consumers’ appetite for action.
So let's take a closer look at our current roadblocks and how innovative thinking is leading the way forward.
Roadblock #1 - Archaic recycling systems
Today’s plastic recycling system is failing us: whilst 20 per cent of plastic enters recycling systems, after accounting for sorting and recycling losses, only 15 per cent of global plastic waste is actually being recycled. The pathway to an efficient circular economy is still blocked by archaic ways of designing products and the mechanisms of material collection and recycling.
To truly create an effective circular economy we need to focus on closing all loops to ensure post-consumer plastic waste is consistently and efficiently turned back into new materials.
To achieve carbon neutrality as well as benefit from the properties and economics of plastics we must increase recovery of valuable resources, boost recycled materials, reduce landfill and de-carbonise the waste-to-energy industry keeping in mind that unsorted plastics are often a part of the input materials.
Roadblock #2 - Poor design-thinking in packaging
We can’t repeat it enough - if we are to meet the BPF’s goals we should be recycling all packaging produced by the retailers. Placing recycling at the heart of packaging design thinking is key, yet many brand owners are still reticent to make many meaningful changes.
Despite claims to the contrary, few packaging recycling features run very deep and those that are bolted on are unlikely to be clearly thought through. Efficient recycling formulations are few and far between.
The majority of packaging items on our shelves have been designed with the primary purpose to engage with the consumer, protect the contents within and tell a strong brand story. Most materials have been designed to be processed only once and recycling features that minimise recycling complexity and create closed loop opportunities are woefully low on the list of priorities.
Narrowing the wide range of polymers used in packaging (to LLDPE, HDPE, PP and PET) and using mono-polymer composition would also greatly benefit the technical and economic performance of recycling operations.
I have previously mapped out what a 360 degree recycled bottle would look like, from tethered, single polymer caps to self-peeling labels, using widely recycled plastic materials, careful or no-pigment choices to clarity on-pack recycling instructions to ensure every element of the package neither hinders nor complicates recycling.
If well thought-out, a fully recyclable pack should barely deviate from the original design. Cost should not even be a factor as re-designing a pack or bottle to be as recyclable as possible should improve its quality and reduce its cost.
Roadblock #3 - Absence of food-grade rPP
Drilling down to specific plastics that are currently not being recycled back into food-grade packaging highlights a missing link in the recycling stream, that are the pots, tubs and trays made from Polypropylene (PP), a highly versatile polymer that dominates this non-bottle packaging stream.
Polypropylene (PP) accounts for 20% of the world’s plastics. In the UK, some 300,000tpa of PP is used in packaging out of a total of 700,000tpa used. Yet currently there is no food-grade recycled PP available for use as recycled content in new packaging.
PP surfaces in those ‘hard to recycle’ packs such as pots, tubs, trays (PTT) and films in food packaging (approx. 210,000 tpa) as well as in non-food household and personal care products. Which is why closed-loop recycling of rPP to food-grade packaging is more complex due to the presence of non-food PP packaging and the wide variety of packaging formats.
Currently, PP packaging is either being downcycled into low performance applications or going to waste-to-energy or landfill - thereby wasting precious resources.
For consumer safety, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) requires that recycled food-grade materials can only be made from (>95%) food packaging and that the recycled plastic must meet the same high standards required for virgin food-grade plastics.
The absence of food-grade recycled polypropylene (FGrPP) means that all PP food packaging is currently made from virgin plastics. This global problem removes the opportunity to close-the-loop on so many applications.
If we can create a circular economy for food-grade PP packaging waste we would be able to reduce the production of virgin plastics from petrochemicals, in turn reducing CO2 emissions and diverting waste from both landfill and lower quality plastics.
To illustrate, the production of one tonne of recycled PP saves approximately 1 tonne of CO2 emissions. If the UK meets the 30% recycled content target for food contact PP packaging alone, it will create annual savings of 63,000 tonnes of virgin PP and the equivalent volume in CO2 emissions, which equates to planting 1 million trees.
Retailers and brands seeking to meet the 30% recycled material target by 2025 and avoid the UK’s plastic packaging tax of £200/tonne from April 2022 would see immediate benefits and we already have the cutting edge technology to identify, sort and decontaminate post-consumer plastic waste to achieve this.
Roadblock #4 - Sorting is not sorted
Whilst some discussions around innovative sorting technologies have started emerging it is vital we take a holistic approach to the outcomes of recycling technologies remembering that the majority of sorting is based on Near-Infra Red spectroscopy; otherwise we will create multiple sub-categories of packaging in response to the perception that sorting will have the capacity to create narrower fractions of materials. While this is generally helpful it reduces the recycling productivity and efficiency. At which point the economics will diminish and issues of cross-contamination will increase.
As a consequence the likes of powerful UV-fluorescent markers (POLYPRISM) or digital markers that identify and separate food-grade packaging will only have an impact if we continue the journey to decontaminate and turn the well-sorted post-consumer plastic waste back into high quality recycled mono-polymers that can be re-used in new products.
High performance decontamination technologies that have been shown to remove all possible contaminants to very high levels to ensure compliance with EFSA and USFDA food-contact are required to deliver the penultimate stage of recycling.
Roadblock #5 - Half the solution
Taking a holistic approach to recycling that combines sorting with decontamination is instrumental in closing the loop on the likes of PP and other plastics. However, to be truly effective, it requires all packaging to be designed for optimum recyclability, otherwise the next cycle quality will be compromised and may be expensive to operate.
As the case with Coca Cola’s paper bottle goes to show, only simplifying packaging will result in simpler recycling equipment and lower processing costs.
Plastic as a carbon saving industry
Never before have we seen such dramatic changes to the way the recycled plastics market has grown in value and volume. The entire recycling ecosystem is undergoing a fundamental transformation spurred by a growing demand for high quality post-consumer recycled materials.
Achieving the BPF’s mission for a cleaner, more sustainable future is possible so long as we have a clear set of unified design for recycling guidelines, consistent collections and material quality standards to mark the end of this shameful discard era.
As Paul Davidson, Smart Sustainable Plastics Packaging Challenge Director at UKRI recently pointed out, the plastics sector will only have one shot at turning things around, and that time has come. Let’s turn the plastics industry into a carbon saving industry.