Plastics: Immediate challenges for plastics recyclers. The new turning point in our embracing the circular economy thinking and of increased recycled contents
Demand-pull measures crucial to recycling industry’s survival
Demand for recycled plastics has been “very weak”, “huge” stocks are overhanging the market and many companies are struggling with “a lack of liquidity”, while at the same time low oil values have driven down prime plastic prices. The end result, according to BIR Plastics Committee Chairman Henk Alssema of Vita Plastics in the Netherlands, has been “very low prices for all types of recycled plastics”.
Addressing the BIR Plastics eForum on June 10, Mr Alssema called on invited panellists to offer personal insights into their markets before directing follow-up questions to each in turn.
Clément Lefebvre of Veolia Propreté France Recycling described the combination of low oil prices and the COVID pandemic as “a nightmare” for the plastics recycling sector, although he also conveyed this more encouraging message: “If you produce high-quality material, you have got a chance to make some business and to make some money - but it has to be the highest quality.”
Like several other participants, he believed that a legal framework promoting recycled content represented “the only way to ensure people are going to use recycled resin more than prime material”. Sally Houghton of the Plastics Recycling Corporation of California agreed: “There has to be legislation; there has to be government intervention. The recycling industry is on its knees. There needs to be some incentive to encourage end users to use recycled content. We need some firm pull-through of demand.”
Earlier, she had maintained that many recycling centres in her region “may not recover unless they have immediate financial relief”.
China Sustainable Plastics Association’s Executive President Dr Steve Wong of Fukutomi Co. Ltd agreed that governments should look to provide additional financial motivation to use recycled material and should be extending the push to incorporate recycled contents to other polymers and colours beyond natural PET and HDPE. The call for greater government help for recycling was also supported by Natalia Cruz of Ferromolins, SL in Spain where, she said, the steep drop in virgin plastic prices had undermined the viability of recycling operations.
Touching on the need to take account of recycling as far back as the design stage, Andrei Mihai Sofian of Rematholding Co. SRL in Romania stressed the importance of co-operation along the plastics value chain to help ensure products were as easily recyclable as possible. Material mixtures in some products rendered them “almost impossible” to recycle, he maintained.
A key obstacle to greater recycling in the Middle East was the categorization of plastics scrap as “waste” because the ban on imports restricted flows of input material to recycling facilities, lamented Mahmoud Al Sharif of Sharif Metals, Int’l LLC. He also noted that a cost-cutting decision by manufacturers to make plastics drinks bottles thinner was actively discouraging their collection for recycling.
Dr Dirk Textor, Chairman of German recycling association BVSE, summarized many of these concerns in his guest presentation to the eForum. COVID-19 had accelerated the trend seen over the previous five years towards much cheaper virgin and recycled plastic prices. And he stated: “The use of PP and PE recyclates in applications is driven by price - and only by price.”
This wide-ranging discussion of market developments was concluded on a positive note by
Mr Alssema who insisted that the recycling industry remained “vital” to a Circular Economy.
Providing the Plastics eForum with a legislative update, BIR Trade & Environment Director Ross Bartley confirmed that new UN Basel Convention listings for transboundary movements of plastics waste would become effective from January 1 2021 but that some details still required clarification, particularly with regard to non-hazardous plastic wastes which would traditionally be governed in the same way as normal commercial transactions.
Mr Bartley went on to welcome the significant recycling industry representation within the United Nations’ Plastic Waste Partnership, whose first working group meeting in early March had sought to establish areas of activity, including regulation, recycling and design.