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  • BIR Copenhagen 2024 - Plastics Division: Design for recycling is key to the transition to a more sustainable plastics system

BIR Copenhagen 2024 - Plastics Division: Design for recycling is key to the transition to a more sustainable plastics system

  • 03 June 2024

Only a few minutes after the BIR General Assembly had ratified the elevation of the world recycling organization’s Plastics Committee to Division status, its President Henk Alssema stood at the podium in Copenhagen’s Bella Center and declared to cheers and applause: “Welcome to the meeting of the Plastics Division - we can finally say that now.”

Mr Alssema, of Vita Plastics in the Netherlands, went on to express the hope that this change would “lead to even more awareness of the importance of plastics recycling”.

But it was immediately back to business as Mr Alssema reported tough conditions for plastics recyclers owing to, among other reasons, rising production costs, staff shortages and an unpromising investment climate. Colleagues on the Plastics Division board also highlighted some of the challenges facing recyclers: Sally Houghton of The Plastic Recycling Corporation of California reported pressure from cheap imported material coming mainly from South East Asia; and Dr Steve Wong of Fukutomi Recycling Ltd in China lamented “very high” transportation costs and difficulties in finding profitable feedstock. However, Max Craipeau of Hong Kong-based Greencore Resources Ltd chose to focus on the positive of mandates pushing brands towards incorporating more recycled content into their products.

Details of the Plastics Europe roadmap for a sustainable plastics system were presented to the meeting in Copenhagen by the organization’s Senior Policy Manager Dominic Byrne. Aims included making plastics more recyclable, driving lifecycle emissions to net zero and fostering the sustainable use of plastics. Among the challenges presented by these goals, he highlighted the need for improved waste collection, further innovation in recycling and a supportive policy/regulatory framework.

The estimated additional plastics system cost of this transition would be Euro 235 billion, Mr Byrne stated.

Having noted that the roadmap supports the development of chemical as well as mechanical recycling technologies, Mr Alssema pointed to BIR’s recently-released position paper calling for mechanical recycling to remain the preferred large-scale approach and for chemical recycling to be limited to hard-to-recycle end-of-life plastics. Mr Byrne described the two options as “very complementary” and, when looking to the longer term, did not expect chemical to overtake mechanical in the plastics recycling mix.

In response to a comment from Robin Wiener, President of the US Recycled Materials Association, on how the complex array of plastic compositions and additives made recycling impossible in certain instances, Mr Byrne said: “It is something we are working to improve upon. We do see design for recycling as key to that.”

Ms Wiener emphasized that recyclers had “a part to play” in delivering greater sustainability and would welcome a co-operative approach. Earlier, Mr Byrne had insisted: “We need to work together; we need to collaborate.”

Xavier Lhoir of Belgian extended producer responsibility organization Valipac switched the focus of the session to new EU legislation. Under the revised Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) entering force on May 20, he noted, exporters would have to demonstrate that their waste would be managed in an environmentally sound manner by ensuring independent audits were conducted on the facilities to which it was destined. He went on to provide a snapshot of plastic shipments from Belgium to OECD and non-OECD countries, noting that eight out of 98 recycling facilities had failed to achieve compliance mainly through an absence of necessary licences, use of child labour and major environmental issues.

Mr Lhoir called for the development of a certification scheme which guaranteed compliance of the audited recycling facilities with EU regulatory requirements. This could remain open to any independent third party with respect to WSR criteria and would guarantee a high level of quality and credibility.

The same speaker also noted that the new EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation establishes some challenging goals for minimum post-consumer recycled content.