Several conferences led by industry, governmental, and non-governmental organizations and associations took place in September and October 2019 that focused largely on plastics recycling and ways to increase recycled content in products.
Panelists taking part in the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in the U.S. emphasized the limited and outdated recycling infrastructure in the U.S. and questioned the feasibility of meeting the targets being set by companies for recycled content in their products. Commenting on targets such as the 50% recycled content envisioned by the state of California (FPF reported), Steve Alexander, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR), said “our studies show that you can ask for that, but it’s not based in reality because you’re only collecting enough material for us to process to provide you with 25% content by 2030. We need to collect more material.”
Commenting on chemical recycling during the event, Eugene Chen from Colorado State University was optimistic and thinks new, more compatible polymers need to be developed to work more efficiently with the technology. “I think there’s a great deal of confusion about chemical recycling – inabilities or inefficiencies or why it doesn’t take off,” Chen commented. “The problem is [companies] do the chemical recycling based on polymers not designed for recyclability. They are legacy polymers, high performers, very, very stable polymers that are very difficult to do chemical recycling.” He argued that companies should instead “welcome the design of new polymers that has an advantage in chemical recyclability, biodegradability performance. I think there should be a multi-pronged approach, not just a single approach.”
At the annual conference of the Society of Plastics Engineers on September 16-18, 2019, discussions also centered on the need for improved recycling infrastructure in the U.S. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) shared their vision to have 100% of plastics packaging reused, recycled, or recovered through chemical recycling by 2040. Coca-Cola representative Ben Jordan also reported on the company’s opposition to introducing bottle deposit return schemes in the U.S. When asked why they are opposed even though such schemes are shown to increase recycling, he responded “I will say, I don’t think it’s completely fair to look at the 10 states that have [bottle laws] in the U.S. and the 40 that don’t as [if] those are the two models that can work in the U.S. I personally think there are some in between that we can work on.” Recyclers at the event also commented that deposit schemes are seen to remove those materials from curbside collection systems in the U.S., which is a valuable resource for those recyclers.
During the K 2019 trade fair in Germany, Joanna Drake, deputy director general of environment for the European Commission (EC) encouraged industry members during her keynote talk to continue increasing recycled plastic content in their products. She commended the recent signatures to the EC’s Circular Plastics Alliance (FPF reported) as a strong positive step, and she highlighted that a new Circular Action Plan will be developed by the EC that aims to increase the confidence consumers have in using recycled materials. “If we don’t tackle [the issue] seriously, then people will not have trust, not even the buyers will have trust in recycled materials,” she said. “We have to make sure there is an evolution to safe and nontoxic plastic recyclates.”
However, not all stakeholders are satisfied with the aims of the Circular Plastics Alliance. In a press release published on September 20, 2019, non-governmental organization (NGO) Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) called the alliance a missed opportunity. The NGOs ZWE, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), and ECOS decided not to sign the alliance’s declaration “given the regrettable lack of ambition, transparency and NGO involvement in the drafting of the declaration.” The group also strongly opposes the alliance’s “complete omission of the risks associated with the presence of toxic substances in plastic waste: it should be ensured that hazardous chemicals do not make their way into new products through recycled content.” They also see the alliance’s commitment of pledging 10 million metric tons of recycled content in products by 2025 as insufficient and leaving Europe with “a high dependency on virgin fossil-based plastics” not compatible with the EU’s ambitions to de-carbonize.
With all of these discussions surrounding content targets and improving recycling infrastructure, an article published by Food Navigator on October 15, 2019 warns that virgin plastic resin prices have fallen. This may prove to be a true test of commitments to use recycled plastics. A recent report by S&P Global Patts is reported to have found that “virgin PET [(polyethylene terephthalate)] spot prices had not previously fallen as low as spot flake prices since S&P Global Patts first began assessing flake prices in February 2008.” The report summarizes by saying “in the short term, the market’s true commitment to sustainability will be tested in the face of unfavorable economics.”
Gloria Gonzalez (October 16, 2019). “APR: Chemical recycling is not ‘silver bullet’ for plastics challenges.” Waste Dive
Bill Bregar (October 11, 2019). “Brand owners want recycled plastic, but where’s the supply?” Plastics News
Steve Toloken (October 16, 2019). “European Commission official: No ‘plastics bashing,’ but industry must step up recycled content.” Plastics News
Caterina Tani (October 16, 2019). “NGOs slam Circular Plastics Alliance’s lack of hazardous chemical measures.” Chemical Watch
Zero Waste Europe (September 20, 2019). “Press Release – The Circular Plastics Alliance, a missed opportunity.”
Oliver Morrison (October 15, 2019). “Cheaper plastic set to test market’s ‘true commitment to sustainability’, warns report.” Food Navigator
Keller and Heckman LLP (November 1, 2019). “Use of Recycled Plastic in Bottles to Rise in Europe Despite Costs.”