This familiar children’s song tells of two characters, Henry and Liza, trying unsuccessfully to fix a hole in his leaky bucket. It describes a 'deadlock' situation where one process is delayed because a system resource is held in another waiting process, which in turn is waiting for another delayed resource. Unless the process can change, a deadlock arises. We could see our recycling system in the same way. The reason all our plastic isn't consistently recycled in a circular loop is a supply-demand issue. Not enough supply reduces demand; not enough demand means it's unprofitable to supply. How can we break this pattern? How can we make sure, in the future, all our buckets are made from recycled content?
8 ways to make recycled content preferable to virgin plastic; creating economic incentives, cleaner streams, and a more reliable supply.
The quickest way to make recycled content is to make virgin plastic more expensive. The EU plastic levy, implemented in January 2021, charges €0.80 per kilogram of non-recyclable plastic packaging, but there is currently no EU tax on using virgin material. Again, the UK is leading by example. In 2022, they will introduce a plastic packaging tax on products made with less than 30% recycled content, providing a clear economic incentive to include more recycled content.
450 bodies across the world have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Setting ambitious targets to include 30% recycled content by 2025, top companies will revolutionise their plastic packaging. Hopefully, these voluntary pledges will be followed by official requirements. Governmental mandates dictating recycled content would insulate recyclate from global market fluctuations and support an internal system.
Design-for-recycling is vital to ensure the optimisation of plastic streams and to advance the use of recycled content. Many plastic products are made of incompatible materials such as paper or aluminium, which cannot be economically separated. Not all plastics are created equal. PET, for example, is 100% recyclable back into food-grade product. The Vita Nova consortium, together with BOPET films Europe and Searious Business, highlights this fact. They aim to show that using mono-PET for flexible applications such as tray lids will move these hard to recycle products to a fully circular model.
Currently, the European Commission has implemented targets for recycling that measure the input into recyclers. This tells you how effective the collection system is, but it does not reflect the end amount of useful recycled material being produced. Differentiating between input and output targets would give a clearer picture of recycling in a country and lead to improved quality of recycled content.
Extended Producer responsibility (EPR) agreements would stimulate businesses to evaluate the life cycle of their products. Don't bring something to market if there is no way of processing it as waste. Instead, collaborate with recyclers and incorporate recycled content from your own waste streams. Willemijn Peeters, CEO of Searious Business, suggests creating your own internal loop. Using return platforms or leasing subscriptions instead of traditional linear sales models ensures the retention of resources, keeping them in your business instead of losing them to landfill or incineration.
Public funding used to be integral to the success of recycling systems. While the industry still needs support in developing countries, producers must start taking responsibility. Increasingly, major users are incorporating waste and recycling systems into their value chains. In 2019, The Schwarz Group, including Lidl and Kaufland supermarkets, bought Sky Plastics Group as part of its Greencycle subsidiary. This way, they can ensure recyclability and secure their feedstock for new products.
Chemical recycling seems to get around the problem of harder to recycle plastics such as polyolefin-rich packaging. Rabobank predicts advanced recycling plants to double to around 140 plants globally by 2025 as regulatory and public demand for recycled content packaging drives "huge" investment. Methods such as pyrolysis are currently expensive and require prohibitively high energy inputs. Plus, mass balance conversion back into polymers is still inefficient at 40%. They should be seen as a complement to mechanical recycling rather than a magic bullet.
Clear communication is crucial to increase consumers appreciation for recycled content. An easy labelling system will allow people to make an informed choice. With consumer participation, the quality and quantity of recycled feedstock will improve, accelerating the circular economy. Unfortunately, much of our recycling is still shipped outside of national borders, out of sight, out of mind. Transparency must be made mandatory across the plastic value chain.
Time for investment
The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in an increased demand for plastic packaging. Together with disruptions in the supply chain of virgin materials, this resulted in the price of recycled plastic skyrocketing in recent months. According to Michael Lauperr at rSupply, the industry needs people to invest in assets now to shape the future rather than wait to see what happens. "Mastering extreme market volatility as seen over the past 12 months will be the real challenge transforming mechanical recycling to be a part of the circular economy," he says. Developing a robust market for domestic recycled content will make the plastic industry resistant to global economics and fluctuating oil prices.
To plug the hole in the bucket, we have to start making them all from recycled content.