Technological watch

Is plastics recycling a waste of time or a wasted opportunity?

According to a recently published study, “Plastics Recycling in Europe – A waste of your time or a wasted opportunity?” by industry consultants Applied Marketing Information Ltd. (AMI Consulting; Bristol, UK), the plastics recycling industry will have to develop and grow considerably to meet 2030 EU plastics packaging recycling targets. 

The study expects that the current output capacity of the recycling industry in Europe will need to more than double by 2030 to meet targets. The challenge in growing capacity is that the plastics recycling industry is a complex, dynamic segment with a varied supply stream and value chain. With the price of recyclate intrinsically linked to the price of virgin resin, demand and the financial viability of the process is often subject to fluctuations in raw material prices.

Consequently, demand for recyclate is increasingly driven by brand owners’ desire to be seen as “environmentally friendly” and “green” rather than financial incentives. This is primarily due to sustainability becoming increasingly more important to consumers, and plastic receiving considerable negative press, bringing it to the forefront of many debates and discussions. 

But just how much are brand owners willing to sacrifice in profits for their green image? And how much of this image depends on false information and promotional hype? Wouldn’t a better strategy involve educating consumers about the energy and resource consumption involved in recycling plastic? For example, explain how much hot water and chemicals (yes, chemicals) are used to clean plastic recyclate of labels and adhesives to make the material suitable for recycling into new bottles and containers. That’s in addition to the energy it takes to haul recycled products and materials to MRFs, run conveyors so that people can sort the trash from the good materials, bale it and then ship it via truck to a reprocessing facility. 

One method of eliminating the hot chemical wash to rid bottles and containers of labels is the in-mold labeling process, in which the labels are the same type of plastic as the bottle or container, resulting in greater recycling rates without the use of resources. 

Allan Griff, a consulting engineer for the extrusion industry and PlasticsToday columnist, recently wrote on The Chain, a Society of Plastics Engineers online community/industry exchange, that he sees “too much attention being paid to the concept of recycling (and degradation) rather than the numbers. And the numbers should include energy, not just money, as our opponents like to say that they’re doing this—poisoning us—because of the money! I suspect the work has been done, but isn’t popular because it shows that single use is sometimes better for the environment in quantifiable terms like energy.”

The AMI report notes that “capturing the value of plastics through reuse and recycling not only helps retain a product, which currently primarily derives from the Earth’s finite natural resources, but also helps prevent the leaking of plastic waste into the ecosystem and create a circular economy. Because of this, the plastics recycling industry is gaining growing attention.”

I doubt that plastic just “leaks” into the ecosystem. I would argue that most plastic waste is intentionally thrown into the ecosystem (both land and water) by uncaring human beings who pay little to no mind when it comes to recycling, reusing, landfilling or any other form of keeping trash out of the ecosystem.

Publication date: 31/07/2018

Plastics Today

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Last update: 2020-07-14