Redesigning the recycling industry

Plastic bales awaiting recycling. [JMacPherson/Flickr]

Low raw material costs have dealt a heavy blow to the recycling industry. The French recycling federation (FEDEREC) believes the sector needs a complete overhaul to stay afloat in the coming years. Our partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

FEDEREC published its view of the future of recycling in a white paper entitled “The recycling industry by 2030.” In the preface to this 70-page document, a frank discussion of the problems facing the industry and how they might be solved, Corinne Lepage, a Republican politician, evoked a sector “devastated by an oil price that is so low that it is driving us back towards a linear economy, as it is cheaper today to buy primary raw materials than recycled raw materials”.

>>Read: Recycling industry under pressure from falling raw material prices

But according to the former French environment minister, other factors also explain “this economic nonsense, which is made possible by an absence of pressure to absorb external costs, particularly the cost of carbon, which burdens recyclers and the whole of the reuse industry”.

A sector in difficulty

The once-flourishing recycling sector has been in stormy waters for several years. The white paper points to “decreasing volumes, falling raw material prices, pressure on selling prices, margin erosion, the appearance of new competitors and new rules, intensifying competition at all levels…”

With oil at only $35 per barrel, Yann Vincent, the coordinator of the white paper and president of FEDEREC’s research and innovation committee, believes the industry must “find ways to rethink its activity”.

>>Read: Waste key to global climate protection, German study says

But this crisis does not explain everything. The white paper points to the increasingly complex resources available to the sector, which are becoming “more technical and more fragmented, so harder to recycle”. This is particularly true as businesses try to “cut the amount of materials they use and the waste they generate, and if possible, recycle internally”.

And the nature of waste products is not the only factor that is changing. The broader global context will also push the recycling industry to transform its practices “in a fairly radical way”, while its economic model will be “permanently altered by the increasing consideration of climate issues and the digital revolution”.

Concrete proposals

For FEDEREC, “society is stirred by deep currents that will leave no sector untouched”. The white paper’s authors tried to leave things on a positive note: “This groundswell that will change our activity will certainly bring more opportunities than threats […] and it will allow recycling companies to come up with new and creative strategies for adding value.”

FEDEREC would like to see increased regulatory and fiscal support for this sector, which is “particularly vulnerable to variations in its environment”, as well as innovation and investment “with the help of public powers”.

Vincent believes the industry must “consider partnerships with new actors and even move towards integrating the production and marketing chains for products made from recycled materials.”

The study makes several suggestions as to how these changes might be achieved, through investment and the promotion of R&D, the certification of recyclability, the broadening of the market for recycled materials, the promotion of ecodesign and the marketing of ecodesigned products. 


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