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Plastics

Extract BIR Annual Report 2023

Industry needs assists, not own goals

In my previous contribution to BIR’s Annual Report, I adopted a well-known footballing phrase – “a game of two halves” – to describe the sudden shift during 2022 from positive to negative fundamentals. Looking back now at market conditions in 2023, another saying familiar to football fans comes instantly to mind: one-way traffic.

Our industry was under immense pressure throughout the entire year as it faced the onslaught of low demand and poor prices for our final products, leading to uncomfortably high stocks. A cynic might say that the market found its direction in 2023: unfortunately, that direction was generally downwards.

Market uncertainty has undermined confidence among recyclers to invest in their operations and therefore to drive forward this industry’s growth for the long term. Still-high interest rates and energy costs have added to our woes, combining with persistent inflationary pressure which has led to increased labour costs and thus a further squeeze on profit margins. Rather than boosting capacities, many recyclers have opted to limit or even curtail production in the face of such unrelenting market challenges.

Memories are now fast-fading of those all-too-brief glory days when brands were fulsome in their commitments to the use of recycled plastic as part of their bold environmental agendas. But as we heard first hand at our May 2023 meeting in Amsterdam from Caroline van der Perre of Belgian recycler RAFF Plastics, customers were now switching back from recycled to cheap, often-imported primary raw materials. Rather than reaping the benefits of investment in recycling capacity, she lamented that her business was now struggling to keep all its lines running.

Last year’s BIR Conventions in Amsterdam and Abu Dhabi were a great success on many levels, not least in illustrating how the recycling sector is alive with ideas and innovation. At the October meeting of our Plastics Committee, for example, Jerome Viricel of Recapp in the UAE spoke of his company’s success in encouraging recycling through an app and website serving Dubai which were creating a phenomenally useful database of consumption and behaviour. 

At the same time, our Plastics Committee meetings drill to the very core of latest industry issues. At last year’s gatherings, there were reasoned arguments in favour of a standardized legal framework within Europe and an extension of obligations to use recycled materials as routes to boosting our industry’s ailing prospects. And yet we also heard how the legislative climate facing recyclers is becoming ever more obstructive, such as through unhelpful changes to the EU Waste Shipment Regulation. To further the footballing analogy, our industry needs assists in order to flourish, not own goals. 

Our meetings also brought pleas for encouragement of mechanical over chemical recycling. In Abu Dhabi, Carlos Monreal of Plastic Energy in Spain delivered a robust defence of chemical recycling while insisting that such technologies need to focus on hard-to-recycle, end-of-life plastics that cannot be processed mechanically. 

The concerns and ideas voiced at these meetings come from experts positioned in recycling’s front line on a day-to-day basis; it is to these people, surely, that legislators should be listening and responding with help rather than hindrance. As BIR’s Trade & Environment Director Alev Somer told us in her Abu Dhabi presentation on developments towards a UN Global Plastics Treaty, it is essential that recycling industry representatives have a seat at the table and are not regarded merely as service providers. 

Our views should count. And yet despite the proliferation of recycled plastic content mandates worldwide, the earlier momentum enjoyed by our industry has been largely lost. As a first course of action, legislation underpinning the use of recycled content in final products needs to be implemented in order to create a more balanced market and to reduce destructive fluctuations in demand and prices, thus enabling recyclers to grow their businesses with confidence. 

The paramount need for positive action to restore momentum to viable environmental solutions such as recycling is underscored by the OECD study “Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060”, which concludes that global plastics waste generation is set on a course to outpace envisaged improvements in waste management. Recycling can achieve so much more if given the proper legislative tools.

“A cynic might say that the market found its direction in 2023: unfortunately, that direction was generally downwards.”

Henk Alssema

Vita Plastics (NLD)
PLASTICS DIVISION PRESIDENT
Infography

IMPORTANT FACTS

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 PROCESSES

SORTING

GRINDING

COMPOUNDING

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.

APPLICATIONS

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:

  • Polyethylene bin liners and carrier bags
  • Plastic bottles
  • Flooring and window frames
  • Building insulation board
  • Garden furniture and fencing
  • Garden sheds and composters
  • Seed trays
  • Fleeces
  • Fibre filling for sleeping bags and duvets
  • Office accessories
  • Parts for the car industry
  • Pipes and crates

RECYCLING MARKET VARIATIONS AND SHIFTS

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. 

RECYCLING FACTS

  • Recycling 6 PET bottles produces enough fibre for one T-shirt.
  • The global plastic recycling market is expected to register a compound annual growth rate of well over 6% in the next few years.
  • According to the OECD, plastic recycling rates are between 14 and 18% at the global level. However, the United Nations puts the global recycling rate for plastics at just 9%.

Steering Committee

President

Henk Alssema

Vita Plastics (NLD)

Mahmoud Al Sharif

Sharif Metals, Int'l LLC (ARE)

Max Craipeau

Greencore Resources Ltd (CHN)

Natalia Cruz Cayuela

Ferromolins, SL (ESP)

Sally Houghton

The Plastic Recycling Corporation of California (USA)

Xavier Lhoir

VALIPAC (BEL)

Marvin Pfeiffer

SINOX POLYMERS GMBH (DEU)

Kay Riksfjord

REVAC AS (NOR)

Dr Steve Wong

Fukutomi Co Ltd (CHN)