In one camp we have those who believe plastic should be totally eradicated and in the other, we have those who acknowledge that plastic is too deeply entrenched in our lives to be able to ban it for good.
Either way, we are quite literally drowning in a sea of plastic that requires urgent transformational management, and I believe this is where our focus should rest.
The paradox here is that recyclers are actually struggling to source sufficient upstream PCR (post-consumer recycled plastic) to meet the increased demand for recycled plastic.
In the UK only 59% of plastic bottles are currently collected for recycling, and many of these bottles end up going to landfill or incineration because they’re contaminated by other waste. In fact, European figures suggest that only around 37% of bottles are actually recycled.
Meanwhile, the Philippines recently shipped back tonnes of rubbish to Canada that it said was falsely labelled as plastic recycling in 2013 and 2014, and worries about receiving such waste is now propelling other countries to act. Vietnam is no longer issuing new licences and will bar all imports of plastic scrap by 2025, in October, Taiwan said it will only import single source plastic waste and India expanded its ban on solid plastic waste imports this March.
Poorly managed plastic waste is creating havoc, when in fact high-quality waste has the potential to be turned into a myriad of recycled plastic products. It is now not only technologically possible but economically viable to produce plastic products from 100% recycled material. In fact, there is no reason why plastic shouldn’t be seen as its own raw material.
Deposit schemes designed to encourage the return of plastic bottles can result in like-for-like recycling. Yet there are still widespread misconceptions around the quality of recycled materials and what is achievable.
The PET industry as a whole has made huge progress and we now have the technology to produce lightweight PET bottles made from 100% food-grade post-consumer recycled (PCR) PET.
We need to address the situation in a more visionary way that centres around managing the pressing waste situation by properly re-using plastic, and this should mean everything from creating 100% recycled products to a greater focus on refillable bottles.
Refillable bottles may be yet another way to help reduce packaging waste, and advances in technology enable us to turn high percentages of post-consumer plastic into top quality plastic bottles that satisfy the very strict hygiene requirements for RefPET.
To date, there are very few international studies that compare recyclable PET (R-PET) and refillable PET (RefPET) bottles, yet Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Schweppes and a number of national brands have gone down the refillable route in Germany where consumers have had a choice for some time now between 30% to 50% PCR one-way bottles and RefPET.
The RefPET refillable bottles for carbonated beverages and water products can be made with as much as 30% recycled content and can be reused up to 20 times. Bottles removed from the pool (approximately 2% every cycle) are collected, converted to PCR flakes and pellets for the production of new bottles, making it a true zero waste plastic pack format.
PCR has a significantly lower carbon footprint than virgin PET materials and, contrary to popular belief, PET bottles made from up to 50% PCR are as clear as a bottle made from virgin material and equally strong.
We demonstrated this recently when we teamed with leading Northern European beverage producer, Royal Unibrew, to develop a best in class, high performance, lightweight 500 ml bottle with 50% food-grade post-consumer recycled PET for a major carbonated soft drinks brand. We have even developed a 100% PCR solution for still water brands.
As numerous brands step up to the vision of eliminating all their packaging from either going to landfill or waste, either solution relies on improved recycling processes. This means the consumer too plays a vital role in achieving this.
Increasing localised approaches are having a positive knock-on effect too. As Abishek Balasubramanian at GA Circular, a Singapore-based sustainability consultancy, told the FT in a recent interview, we need to be focusing on local ecosystems, with collection and recycling within the same country. This model is typically more resilient than those that depend on international trade. In the case of Royal Unibrew, the Cleanpet flakes we use to produce their latest top-performing bottle are sourced from recycled PET bottles collected locally.
Taking a holistic approach to the issue means that Royal Unibrew’s plant in Faxe Denmark has improved processability, increased the production line output, and reduced the amount of energy and compressed air used in the manufacturing process. Light-weighting has further reduced C02 emissions with 135 tonnes CO2eq, a 7.44% reduction by saving a significant 67.2 tonnes of material per annum, further enhancing the product’s carbon footprint.
Obviously, there is no one clear-cut solution, it is about adapting tailored solutions to regional requirements as we look to reduce carbon footprints and resolve to re-use as well as reduce the waste we are producing.
We need only look to other countries who have made a real success of their plastic waste collection, to see that by embracing an impactful waste management scheme they are way ahead of the UK in terms of doing their part to transform waste into a valuable, reusable resource.
Norway has a 95% recycling rate that includes everything that’s collected and doesn’t end up polluting the land or sea — even if ultimately the bottles end up being incinerated rather than recycled. The actual recycling rate of PET bottles in Norway is estimated at about 80 to 90%.
Germany has set targets to recover and recycle up to 90% of plastic via a new legislation that came into play on the 1st of January 2019.
These countries have refined their recycling processes to deliver top quality PCR flakes.
Ultimately sustainability is everyone’s responsibility and shipping plastic waste offshore is not going to solve anything. We should not be blind to plastic’s potential to address the situation; it is not plastic that is the problem so much as how we manage it.