Prompted by a visit to the Plastics Recyling Show Europe in Amsterdam in November, Willemijn Peeters, CEO Searious Business recently wrote this op-ed for Sustainable Plastics. In it she notes that the PRSE brings together key players from the plastics and recycling sectors to showcase innovations and share best practices.
“Everyone here, from plastic material suppliers to recyclers to waste management specialists, all want one thing. To accelerate the circular economy for plastics through recycling in the industry. As always, it is an impressive line-up of people gathered to discuss and jointly explore new potentials.
All very positive indeed, yet I have been hearing nothing new at recent events. Since I won the Ambassador Award of Plastic Recyclers Europe back in 2018, we have been having the same conversations year after year, but it seems like little action has taken place. Either companies are unwilling to expose their development work publicly, or innovation is stuck at a standstill. Before the COVID pandemic, I was impressed by the openness and willingness to share knowledge. Companies seemed prepared to join together and move beyond their comfort zones to reach new levels of change, but actual progress is painfully slow.
There is no more time to chew the fat. We're no longer talking theory. Legislation is coming up in many European countries at full speed, forcing the industry to catch up with their promises. Many brand owners have committed to reducing virgin plastic use, but many fail to incorporate recycled content due to lack of supply. The ones that are vertically integrating recyclers into their value chain are the real winners. Or the ones that have made package deals for the upcoming years. By joining forces, they ensure both consistent supply and demand. Good for the users, good for recyclers, who then have the security that someone will buy their recyclate after investing in expensive machinery and new technologies.
Many standout new technologies focus on improving collection and sorting to raise the quality of recyclate produced. Digital markers and tracers embedded in the plastic packaging, like those from the Holy Grail collaboration, will help solve one of the largest obstacles facing plastic recycling: efficient sorting at the recycling facilities, keeping the value high. Making a closed loop is a commonly heard phrase these days. However, brand owners could go one step further and close the loop themselves. By introducing deposit return systems, they bypass the contaminated collection system and retain their resources directly.
However, the way the system is now, there is nowhere near enough capacity to cater to the needs of all the brands that have expressed ambition to reduce their virgin plastic use. According to Rabobank, "3 - 4 million tpy capacity would still only be a drop in the ocean to solve the plastic waste issue". And although nobody will tell you this out loud, chemical recycling is not the silver bullit solution. Advanced recycling technologies are expensive and unfavourable in terms of energy inputs. You need adequate sorting first for almost all chemical recycling options. Plus, mass balance conversion back into polymers is still inefficient at 40%. At best, it can only serve as a last resort.
So mechanical recyclers need to step up their game. Start with the easy stuff: not food packaging, which has tight restrictions, but all non-food packaging and products such as buckets, construction material, automotive parts and electronic covers. These items can easily be made from recyclate with little effect on their functionality or aesthetics. With the price of oil escalating and the pressure to turn away from fossil fuels, the market for recyclate is set to explode. It needs a fully integrated system, with everyone on the value chain working in symbiosis.
The European Commission will help to create an even more level playing field mid 2022, when publishing more legislative measures. The big question is: Do you want to steer or be steered? We need more industry leaders taking bold action, taking responsibility for the materials they put on the market and ensuring circular use.
It's no longer viable or profitable to sit on the sidelines and hope someone else will fix the broken system - change-makers within companies need to step up. Those who do so and openly embrace the circular economy will reap the rewards for their companies and our world.”