It was all going so well – and then, quite suddenly, it wasn’t...
In early 2022, plastics recyclers were in largely uncharted territory, experiencing not only massive demand but also extremely high prices for their products. Never had their position seemed so secure: whereas recycled plastics had once been unfairly dismissed by many potential consumers as substandard compared to primary resources, they had now morphed into highly-desirable raw materials whose use would help propel a host of blue-chip consumers towards fulfilment of their increasingly ambitious environmental pledges.
Momentum had been built by the ongoing proliferation of recycled plastic content mandates worldwide.
In Europe, indeed, there has even been the added encouragement of a proposal to extend recycled content targets from plastic bottles to all plastic packaging.
But of course, these generally healthy conditions in the opening months of 2022 were not without challenges, most notably the struggle to source sufficient feedstock to satisfy this welcome demand boom; in the Far East, for example, most factories were operating at less than 20% of capacity owing to this dearth of suitable input. And naturally, the available tonnages came with a lofty price tag.
Other business impediments included hugely elevated shipping costs, lack of labour, market tensions over the Ukraine conflict and ongoing trading uncertainties
resulting from the Basel Convention amendments. Lurking too in the background were fears that interest rate rises would lead to cooling economies and thus reduced consumption, ultimately hitting demand and prices for raw materials.
Nevertheless, recyclers were generally able to incorporate cost increases into their sales prices and so preserve their margins.
But then it all started to go wrong. During a 2022 also featuring the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, recyclers played out the proverbial game of two halves. By the time we met in Dubai last October, high demand had turned into low demand almost at the flick of a switch – a suitable metaphor given the blow of soaring electricity prices which meant full production was no longer viable for many of our consumers. Similar considerations afflicted recyclers too: in Europe, for example, where energy
had normally accounted for around 15-20% of their production costs, this figure suddenly careered to nearer 70%.
The above-mentioned recycled content mandates provide tangible recognition of plastics recycling as a key industrial and environmental sector – one which is so essential, surely, that it should merit compensation for these astronomical power costs. If this is not forthcoming, then mechanical recycling of some waste streams will become uneconomical and the far less environmentally- friendly incineration option will be preferred, thus undermining the hard work already invested in building a circular economy.
In difficult times, the resilient and forward-looking recycler will not stand still but, rather, will remain alert to new ideas. One of the many benefits of BIR Conventions is that they provide a platform for new concepts, and so it proved in Barcelona last May where Doug Woodring of Ocean Recovery Alliance outlined the Rebound Plastic Exchange initiative intended to enhance global flows of quality recycled plastics and to drive the innovation and investment required to boost circularity.
Our meetings also provide glimpses of the future. In Dubai, for example, Xavier Lhoir of Valipac in Belgium explained how his organization was currently the only one in the EU covering extended producer responsibility (EPR) for commercial and industrial packaging. However, this is an EPR path that other member states will have to follow by 2024.
At that same meeting, Bashar Ehsan Gadawala of Ala Group explained the UAE’s development of an action plan for plastics management and recycling based on the EU and OECD life-cycle approach, thus re-emphasizing the key role that legislators can play in nurturing the best environment for recycling.
But of course, the value of our Plastics Committee and of BIR membership as a whole is not confined to our twice-yearly meetings. Day after day, BIR
is representing our interests at the ground floor of developments that will shape our industry’s
future. A notable example came late last year
when Alev Somer and Ross Bartley from the BIR Secretariat attended an initial United Nations meeting in Uruguay that will ultimately lead to a new Global Plastics Treaty addressing their entire lifecycle. There will obviously be profound ramifications for our industry and we should take great comfort from the knowledge that our views are being expertly conveyed.
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.