Plastics recycling: how is the industry changing?

Sustainability increasingly drives the recycling value chain

1 minute read

As awareness of the environmental impact of plastic waste grows, sustainability has become a bigger driver in the recycling value chain.

Reduce, reuse and recycle is the message at the heart of the circular plastics economy, which has evolved from a minority view to a broader consumer desire and is increasingly influencing the direction of government policy and brand owners’ objectives.

How will these goals affect the recycling industry and is the industry ready to meet the growing demand for recycled content?

Without any real cost-effective alternatives, PET is here to stay for at least the next 10, and probably even 20, years.

Reduce and reuse: the problem with single-use plastic

While there are clearly good intentions behind bans on single-use plastics, there are no easy quick fix replacements. In the search to find alternatives, we expect numerous options to be tested, but it will be difficult to find any that compare favourably with PET, as the most cost-effective polymer that benefits from huge economies of scale.

Greater demand for recycled content

Increasing the use of recycled content is now a core emphasis of many major brands’ sustainability targets and the demand for RPET is rising, resulting in higher prices.

Increase in open-market clear bale prices in West Europe, H1 2018

But there is still a long way to go before this demand can be met. The European Union has set a target for the use of 50% recycled content in plastic bottles by 2030. To meet the target, this material will need to be collected and reused in the first instance  which remains one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Without PET, where will the feedstock for recycled content come from?

We need better collection to support the demand for RPET

Bottle recovery and sorting is the most expensive part of the recycling value chain and the slow growth of the collection industry remains a big challenge. Brand owners who need the recycled content have been reluctant to invest and we expect to see a fight over who owns recycled content as collection battles to keep pace with increased demand.

Differences in bale quality remain a challenge, with both West Europe and the US recording ever-decreasing bale yields as a result of contamination.

Plastic is here to stay. What will change is how we use and dispose of it.

While consumers are well aware of the problem of plastic waste, there needs to more education about its value as a product that can and should have another life, rather than being a throw-away commodity.

As governments search for ways to address the problem, packaging and PET are likely to be more heavily regulated and we could see new taxes being introduced. Change will come, albeit slowly. Improved collection systems and better consumer education would be a good place to start.

At the 2018 Living with Plastic Packaging conference, we explored how the emphasis on sustainability will drive change in the recycling industry. Our presentation details global PET bottle collection trends and explores the dynamics of the RPET market in West Europe. Fill in the form on this page to download a copy of the presentation slides.