Plastic waste: what’s new is old

Plastic ready to be recycled in the yard of a company specialising in ecological treatments. [Moreno Soppelsa/Shutterstock].

Plastic ready to be recycled in the yard of a company specialising in ecological treatments. [Moreno Soppelsa/Shutterstock].

This article is part of our special report Plastic waste management.

Companies doing business in Europe may soon have to ensure their packaging contains a minimum amount of recycled plastic. But getting their hands on quality recycled materials in sufficient quantity is currently difficult.

When it comes to packaging, it seems like using secondary raw materials should be a no-brainer for companies. Rather than having to secure virgin raw materials, having access to the material you’ve already used in your packaging in order to make new packaging would be much easier.

That may be how it should work in theory, but today that’s not how it works in practice. Europe is not recycling enough plastic packaging to meet the demand for secondary raw materials. And that which is being recycled is often prohibitively expensive.

“Recycled PET [Polyethylene terephthalate] is right now two times the cost of virgin PET,” says Gabriel Thoumi, head of the plastics programme at Planet Tracker, a think-tank that has been looking at plastic manufacturing.

Part of the reason, he says, is that investment is still being made in virgin plastic production facilities rather than recycling facilities. And while downstream users of packaging like consumer goods companies, are eager to be using secondary plastics from recycling, the demand isn’t being met.

“If you’re a packaging company, you’re hiding in plain sight and you don’t want anyone to know your name,” Thoumi says. “You don’t want activists to be engaging with you. You can blame ExxonMobil, they’re upstream. Or you can blame fast-moving consumer goods companies, they’re downstream. The packaging companies buy their plastics resins and they form the resins into hundreds of thousands of products. It’s a low margin business.”

“So these companies, the Tescos, the large brands, they need to come together and say we must eliminate plastic packaging together, and the packaging that we do use needs to be simplified and standardised so it can be recycled.”

Company action

The market, says Thoumi, is experiencing a distortion if consumer goods companies want to use secondary raw materials but external factors are discouraging it. He says funding mechanisms or targets could help solve this.

That’s where the EU has recently gotten involved. This year the European Commission launched a circular economy action plan which floats the idea of requiring packaging to have a minimum amount of recycled content. And Jan Huitema, the Dutch MEP who is in charge of the file in the European Parliament, is planning to add an explicit call for such a requirement in his report.

Further regulatory clarification could come in an upcoming sustainable products policy from the European Commission. Speaking at a Euractiv event earlier this week, Paola Migliorini, the Commission’s point person for sustainable production, products and consumption, said that packaging will be included in this policy, and it will be coordinated with the revision of the packaging waste rules. “You need to see the sustainable product policy framework as a puzzle where different initiatives come in and bring different elements”.

“The ongoing impact assessment for revision is looking into the option to make all packaging reusable and recyclable by 2030,” she added. “We need to look into reducing the use of certain materials. But depending on the applications and labelling that does with it, we’re also looking into reducing over-packaging and the overall packaging waste generation. We’ll look into also some of the targets. We will have hopefully some elements that will make recycled content mandatory.”

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Jan Huitema, who is in charge of guiding the circular economy strategy through the European Parliament, says his report will include requirements for products to contain a minimum amount of recycled material.

Already, the prospect of looming targets has spurred quite a lot of voluntary commitments from businesses in Europe, more so than has been the case in other markets such as the US. For instance, the industry association PlasticsEurope has set a goal of reaching 60% re-use and recycling for plastics packaging by 2030, increasing to 100% by 2040.

Last week, PepsiCo committed to a much faster timeline, switching its plastic beverage bottles over to 100% recycled plastic in nine EU markets by 2022. The secondary raw materials will be recycled from post-consumer packaging such as recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). For Europe as a whole, PepsiCo set a goal in 2018 of getting to 50% rPET usage across the EU by 2030. This year it reached 30%.

Silviu Popovici, CEO of PepsiCo Europe, says these first markets are just the start in the EU. “We will also look to go further and faster in other European markets where the conditions allow.”

The emissions savings from these types of switchovers could be quite significant. PepsiCo estimates that the move to 100% rPET for pepsi bottles will eliminate over 70,000 tonnes of virgin, fossil-fuel based plastic per year, and will lower carbon emissions per bottle by approximately 40%.

But of course, the company can’t do it on its own. It works in an ecosystem with packaging makers, recyclers, collectors, retail and consumers. “Collaboration between all stakeholders across the EU is central to this issue,” Popovici says. “Working with policy makers and waste management systems, we need to collect more bottles so that plastic needs never become waste.”

Meeting the need

If these companies are going to meet their recycled content goals, that will require an increase in recycling. The first step will be increasing collection. For that, more recycling infrastructure is needed – and more money to fund it.

Currently almost all EU countries have Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes which mean companies that make products are responsible for collecting the plastic waste they generate. But how this is done varies enormously within the union. The European Commission is going to propose a revision to the EU’s packaging waste directive next year, and may propose a harmonisation of these schemes in order to increase collection.

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That revision may also contain new incentives for companies to use secondary raw materials in their packaging, explains Joachim Quoden, managing director of EXPRA, an alliance of European extended producer responsibility schemes. “At the moment the solidarity between all the companies using the same packaging is very strong, but the next step that is coming now is the so-called eco-modulation of fees, where the individual design of the company is more in the focus.”

“In the future you will have a fee per subcategory: a special fee for bottles, for film, and so on. It will be much more differentiated than today. And some member states may differentiate between the best performers and the worst.”

Once collection can be increased, then comes the technical challenges of how to recycle it. Some think that mechanical recycling of plastics has reached its natural limit, particularly when looking at the profit incentives for operating recycling plants. But recently, new advances in chemical recycling are being seriously looked at as an alternative that could greatly boost the level of recycling, because it would provide a much more interesting profit incentive.

Speaking at a EURACTIV event last week, Cristina de Avila, head of unit for sustainable chemicals at the European Commission, said the EU executive is very much interested in this technology.

“We welcome innovations in this field. Chemical recycling seems to be a great opportunity to deal with all the unrecycled plastics. But there are still a lot of challenges to deal with. We need more information on the environmental performance of these technologies, and also what is the actual yield of the processes back to plastic. Also a lifecycle approach needs to be followed. Chemical recycling is a last resort.”

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Regulatory barriers

Companies have complained that it isn’t just the distorted market that’s making the use of recycled materials in packaging difficult. There are also regulatory contradictions that can make things difficult. For instance, the Single Use Plastics Directive says you need to have a certain amount of recycled content, but there are strict limits to what recycled materials you can put in packaging.

The restrictions are particularly severe for food packaging, because of concerns over whether these materials could harm food. This barrier exists both for materials that have gone through chemical recycling and those which have gone through mechanical recycling.

Jan Huitema, the Dutch MEP, says he is aware of these concerns and has raised the packaging limits issue in his report for the European Parliament. “In a broad and general way, we’ve said we need to have a review of existing legislation,” he says.

“One big example is that in some member states you even get a subsidy for incinerating biomass or other materials, while there are some start-ups and other enablers that say, ‘hey, that biomass that’s going to incineration, I can use that as a valuable source of secondary raw material’. But they’re de-stimulated because of subsidies given for incineration.”

Another regulatory barrier that needs to be dealt with, he says, is the lack of appropriate end-of-waste criteria at EU level, which defines what is waste and what isn’t.

“I would say the low-hanging fruit that we should action ASAP is setting end-of-waste criteria. There’s a lot of material that we still consider as waste but with the latest technology even those materials can be recycled. The Commission has a mandate to come forward with end-of-waste criteria, they got it via implementing acts. So they should do that now.”

It will take collective action from companies, recyclers, waste collectors, packaging manufacturers, governments and consumers to change the makeup of the plastic products we use every day. The European Commission is hoping that the upcoming strategy revisions will help make this happen.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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