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The benefits of recycling extend beyond market price considerations to, for example, environmental sustainability, resource conservation and waste reduction. However, the fact is that companies are abandoning the recycled option and reverting to the use of virgin material, basically because recycled plastic is the more expensive owing to the costs of collecting, sorting, transporting and reprocessing.

There are huge difficulties involved in sorting owing to the wide variety of plastics with different compositions; only on rare occasions do you find them isolated. Neither mechanical nor chemical recycling is making recycled plastics a financially attractive option for industry; at the same time, the quality of the plastic obtained is sometimes lower than with virgin material.

By applying a tax to virgin plastic, we can make the price of recycled products more attractive to producers. In Spain, such a tax has been imposed since January 2023 with the purpose of reducing the generation of plastic waste and promoting the circular economy; this levies Euro 0.45 on every kilogram of plastic produced that cannot be recycled. Producers are responsible for declaring production volumes which are to be subjected to this tax. But approaching a year after its introduction, more companies are willing to pay this tax instead of using recycled plastics. Also, some have increased their prices in order to cover the tax such that, in the end, the final customer is the one paying it.

So what next? Could artificial intelligence (AI) be our hope for achieving a competitive plastics recycling market? At the recent InnovaPlásticos conference organized by PlasticsEurope and SusChem, there was discussion of the benefits of applying AI to the plastic recycling market such as through helping the industry to: optimize production processes; improve the efficency of supply chains; reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions; and automate waste sorting to increase recycling by using algorithms to identify optimal combinations of material for recycling.

In summary, we are facing a challenge presented by Europe’s sustainability programme and a a deadline to accomplish it, so we will keep working to make our plastic recycling market a competitive one.