Figures released at the end of 2019 showed that, despite all the noise about single use plastics and legislation coming into place across the globe to ban it, recycling of and the availability of rPET in particular is actually DECLINING.
PET collection across Europe is lagging behind recycled resin demand by more than 450,000 tonnes per year. The current recycling system is fundamentally underfunded and incapable of delivering a circular economy without dramatic evolution both in the recycling industry and the consumers attitudes towards it. There are several factors affecting our ability to recycle effectively:
- New types of packaging are coming onto the market faster than recycling infrastructure can keep up.
- Global recycling systems are unable to supply the amount of recycled material that brands need to meet the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.
- Recycling stakeholders must look at building a more sustainable future recycling system that addresses previously identified challenges.
- Consumers must take more personal responsibility in this chain. Previous surveys have revealed that the vast majority believe it is not their responsibility to be part of this and it should be 100% the brand owner that deals with it.
The shortfall of recycled material to meet brand owner demand is particularly worrying as PET is one of the easiest plastics to collect and recycle. It is estimated that for brands to be able to offer as little a commitment as a 25% inclusion in their bottles, an extra 771,000 tonnes of used plastics need to be recycled annually.
That sounds a lot but it’s actually not – if you look at households in Western economies alone, a consistent increase of only 5% in their recycling of plastics would meet a quarter of that demand. The lack of effective access to recycling services for consumers is a big issue – particularly in their complacency towards their responsibility. It is estimated that the same households in the report dispose of more than 1.4 million tonnes of PET per year through non-recycling routes, easily enough to close the 25% recycled content gap. (there are of course other plastics that are disposed of but this refers only to food grade PET)
The report identified mechanical recycling as the only recycling process currently available at scale. It recommends focusing on traditional recycling technologies in the short term and supporting chemical recycling down the road as it commercializes. Other recommendations included incentivizing recycled material use and better product design for recyclability, as well as adjusting landfill tipping fees to make recycling the more cost-effective option.
To construct a state of the art chemcycling plant costs around £7.6M – again sounds a lot, but put that into context of the recently released report on the costs of the HS2 white elephant that nobody really wants or needs - redirecting the funds from that would enable the construction of 13,000 such plants so in other words – you would need less than 1% of these funds to build a new plant for every city in the UK.
Redirecting half of the funds would enable one recycling plant in every 14 square miles. Again – you’re going to hit a roadblock with consumers there – historically there’s always lots of agreeable nods and soundbites but when it comes to having such a plant on their doorstep it becomes a big ‘not in my back yard’ issue. Basically - we suck at it.