Global consumption of plastics is continuing to soar – and with it the need for an ever more efficient and well-supported recycling infrastructure. The world economy posted robust growth of 5.5% in 2021, with further significant gains of 4% anticipated for 2022 and 3.5% for 2023. Plastics has been among the many beneficiaries, supporting predictions that the world will consume 620 million tons by 2025, 832 million tons by 2040 and even 1.23 billion tons by this century’s mid-point.
Alongside this steep growth trend, we are also witnessing what analysts believe are only the beginnings of a step-change in demand for recycled plastics. Statista, for example, forecasts that the market value of global plastic recycling will increase by more than US$ 25 billion to an estimated US$ 60 billion in the eight years to 2027.
A major factor in this recycled plastics revolution has been the decision by an increasing number of major brands to switch to circular business models. During last May’s BIR Plastics Committee webinar, for example, guest speaker Eelco Smit explained that Dutch-based multi-national Philips had set targets for 2025 of securing 25% of its revenues from circular products, services and solutions, and of quadrupling its annual use of recycled plastic. Already, 95% post-consumer polypropylene content had been incorporated into vacuum cleaner housings and more than 75% recycled plastics into the non-food-contact parts of an award-winning coffee-maker, he told us.
But despite this tectonic shift in attitudes towards recycled plastics use, 2021 brought familiar challenges in terms of the wider perception of what we do and of its importance to the environment, typified by some detrimental comments from highly influential sources who should either be better informed or express themselves more clearly.
Speaking in October ahead of the COP-26 climate change summit in Glasgow and therefore at a time when environmental issues were attracting maximum public attention, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson assured a group of schoolchildren that recycling “doesn’t work” and constitutes nothing more than “a red herring”. Fortunately, a number of experts rallied to rebut his comments, including UK anti-waste charity WRAP which not only described Mr Johnson’s observations as “unhelpful” but also hailed recycling as “a critical part of tackling climate change”, adding that it takes 75% less energy to produce a plastic bottle made from recycled content compared to new plastic.
We can only hope that these calmer and more considered voices are the ones that prevail in the public mind.
The real truth is that, in a significant number of ways, plastics recycling has never worked better. In many parts of the world, we are now seeing much more recycling taking place closer to source as well as a definitive disconnect between primary and recycled plastic values that will continue to spur recycling activity and investment. At the BIR Plastics Committee’s webinar in November last year, Mark Victory of market intelligence provider ICIS argued that, across the plastics spectrum, virgin values were no longer acting as a price cap on recycled prices because of the willingness of brand owners to pay more for the latter in order to meet their sustainability targets. Indeed, many of these targets are now exceeding regulatory requirements because of the scale of consumer pressure to incorporate recycled content in their products.
The general circulation of ill-informed or poorly-worded comments about plastics recycling is not the only challenge facing our industry at present. We can also point to a lack of both feedstock and labour, and to the substantial volumes lost to incineration through the insufficient attention paid to design for recycling.
And as emphasized during both our webinars last year, moving our materials remains fraught with difficulties: global freight rates have soared to punishingly high levels amid disruption and shortages, while inland trucking is also suffering many problems, including a lack of drivers owing to the impact of COVID.
But despite all these obstacles, 2021 will enter history as a truly amazing and groundbreaking year. The course of plastics recycling has changed irrevocably, and almost certainly for the better.
Available today in many shapes and forms, plastics have become part of everyday life. However, their popularity and almost endless applications present a series of challenges for the recycling industry. Certain post-consumer products contain as many as 20 different types of plastic material. This widespread use of all kinds of plastic makes it difficult to collect large enough quantities of certain types to render recycling viable. At the same time, each variety has a particular molecular composition and, as a result, a different recycling process must be employed. Identification and separation technologies are crucial for efficient and effective plastics recycling.
Recycling helps to reduce energy consumption, air/water pollution and also the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills. Plastics are polymers composed primarily of petroleum, thus the recycling industry plays an important role in preserving this vital natural resource. At the same time, issues surrounding plastics waste, and particularly the effects of single-use plastics on the marine environment, have been regularly catapulted into the world media spotlight.
The reality is that plastics recycling offers plenty of upside potential. Global plastics production approached 350 million tonnes in 2017. According to the OECD environmental policy paper of September 2018 entitled “Improving Plastics Management Trends, policy responses, and the role of international co-operation and trade”, plastic recycling rates are between 14 and 18% at the global level. The remainder of plastic waste is either incinerated (24%) or disposed of in landfills or the natural environment (58-62%). Also in 2018, however, the United Nations put the global recycling rate for plastics at just 9%.
Plastic recycling rates vary significantly across different countries, as well as by waste stream and polymer type. Recycling rates in the European Union average 30% but are thought to be considerably higher in some member states, according to the OECD paper. However, it adds, plastic recycling rates in other high-income countries are typically of the order of 10%.
Recycling plastics requires a series of chemical and mechanical procedures:
Sorting: This critical part of the process can be performed both manually and mechanically.
Shredding and compacting: When necessary, sorted plastics are shredded into smaller pieces and baled to facilitate handling and transportation.
Washing: Scrap plastic goes through various mechanical processes to remove dirt. It is then washed and ground into smaller flakes. Flotation tanks are also used to separate plastics from contaminants.
Melting: Plastic is either melted down or shaped into granulates or pellets.
Reforming: The granulates are shipped to manufacturing plants where they are made into new products.
THE SORTING CHALLENGE
The biggest problem with plastics recycling is that it is labour-intensive because of the difficulties of automating the sorting process. Numeric codes are used to indicate different types of plastic. Mechanical sorting processes using spectrometry and other technological innovations have helped to increase plastic recycling capacities and efficiencies.
Containers are usually made from a single type of plastic, making them relatively easy to sort. But mobile phones, for example, usually have various components made from different types of plastic. Research and development programmes have been designed to improve disassembly technologies and to increase the recovery and recycling rates of plastic-containing products.
Unlike with metals, recycling usually affects the physical properties of plastics to some extent. This makes it difficult to recover large amounts of certain types of plastic for use in the same applications for which they were originally produced. Thanks to recycling companies’ intensive research and technological developments, recycled plastic can be used in almost as many applications and products as those using virgin materials.
These are just a few products that can be made from recycled plastic:
Various researchers believe the global plastic recycling market will register a compound annual growth rate of well over 6% in the coming years, pushing its value from approaching US$ 40 billion at present to nearer US$ 60 billion by the middle of the next decade.
Of the 300 million tonnes of plastics waste generated in 2015, only around 14 million tonnes (or 4%) was exported outside the country of origin. Imports of plastics waste are concentrated in a small number of countries; for many years, China imported more than half of the internationally-traded plastics scrap. However, the market has undergone massive disruption of late as the introduction of severe new restrictions led to a 99% drop in Chinese imports of plastic scrap in 2018. Initially, other Asian countries increased their imports hugely but a number have since implemented bans or import restrictions of their own.
Reflecting the supreme adaptability of the recycling industry, this loss of key overseas markets for scrap has led to the development of new plastics recycling capacities, particularly in the major traditional exporting regions of the world such as North America and Europe. This trend benefits the environment because more plastic scrap is processed closer to its point of origin rather than being shipped potentially vast distances for recycling, thereby saving resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The plastics recycling industry helps protect the environment by supplying other sectors - for example, packaging producers - with quality, often tailor-made recycled resins for incorporation into their products, thereby helping to build a circular economy where resources are kept within the usage loop for as long as possible. The recycling industry can also provide valuable expertise at the design stage to help ensure that products are made with their recyclability in mind.