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The recent PET2020 event in Brussels addressed the key issues facing the RPET industry in Europe. Bringing together an audience from across the global supply chain, it highlighted how the region's approach to PET recycling has become a highly regarded model.

I was privileged to sit on a panel with representatives from DG Growth, PRE and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, amongst others, to discuss the following key issues facing the industry in 2017 and beyond.

PET resin gains a competitive edge

With PET resin at its lowest price in recent history and its competitiveness with other packaging polymers having reached a high point, it's clear that PET packaging is being used in new applications and formats. This presents the opportunity to add value to product portfolios as well as new packaging options for brand owners. However, it contravenes the desire for greater standardisation in packaging from the sorting and reclamation elements of the RPET supply chain. That said, it is clear that differentiation of products through packaging does not have to conflict with design for a circular model, product safety and packaging performance.

The ever-growing sheet market continues to produce an increasing volume of thermoforms available for collection. However, the volumes are unmeasured, existing sorting and recycling technologies are not yet advanced enough to handle the increased load there is a general view currently that thermoforms represent a greater cost to recycling activities than there is in realisable value.

Business innovation leads to heightened demand

Innovation in product design, business practices, partnerships, technologies and philosophies will be pivotal to discovering new solutions and evolving partnerships across the supply chain. Key brand owners presented strategies to achieve sustainability goals, including the increased use of recycled content. The move could lead to heightened demand for recycled material (not just PET) which will necessitate the recovery and reclamation industry meeting that need with high-quality feedstocks.

Communication is key to moving forward

Increasing collection volumes of recyclable plastic packaging, through both improved sorting and reclamation capacities, remains challenging. The industry is willing to step up to this task but packaging must be designed with recyclability in mind, turning the challenge back to brand owners and packaging producers.

To move forward, the entire supply chain needs to communicate, collaborate and cooperate to achieve their individual, and collective, goals – improved recyclability, increased recovery of all packaging material types and enhanced quality and volume of recycled products – which will ultimately allow the use of recycled content to grow.

Changing consumer and supply chain behaviour

While there is a need to educate and change the behaviour of consumers, an increased level of awareness and focus is required within the supply chain itself. Closing the information gap between the different entities within the chain, cooperation in finding solutions for the challenges faced by all, improving if not initiating communication throughout the chain.

'I can't see what's coming', one reclamation industry delegate commented, referencing how packaging producers can, at times, be detached from the downstream element of the life cycle. This clearly impacts the ability of the reclamation industry to invest for the future – be it type or volume of polymers or evolving construction of packaging.

The backdrop to all discussions was the Circular Economy, with the Roadmap related to the Strategy on Plastics, having only been recently announced by the EU Commission. Circularity of resources, minimising waste and value capture of end of life resources is now a common language, integral to all discussions and evolving strategies. It is no longer a matter of should we follow this approach, but how to make it happen.