Rethinking plastic

Author Will Collins, Recycled Polymers Editor

The plastics industry is wary that some discourse around curbing plastic waste oversimplifies an issue. How should entities reduce use or increase recycling while meeting consumer expectations?

The environmental impact of plastic waste needs to be addressed. Less than 40pc of all EU plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2014, and it is estimated that 5mn-13mn t/yr of plastic “leaks” into the environment, seas and oceans.

In recent weeks, a number of governments, companies and politicians pledged strategies aimed at curbing plastic waste.

But the industry is wary that some of the current discourse oversimplifies the issue, and that a strategy must account for consumption habits and expectations – and ultimately be financially palatable – to be successful.

Iceland has announced that it will look to harness the latest technologies to develop alternatives to plastics, with the goal of eliminating plastic packaging from its own-label products “within the next five years”. The wording and five-year timeline show that this will not be overnight change. The firm says it is “challenging itself” with the commitment.

Waitrose previously committed to making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2025, which it describes as a “stretching target”, although it recently committed to phasing out black plastic within two years on its own-brand products. Black plastic is more difficult to separate in the recycling process than other colours.

The companies, and others, have decided that retailers need to take responsibility for their plastic use. But it is not easy to suddenly remove plastic packaging while continuing to satisfy consumers’ expectations.

Packaging accounted for around 40pc of Europe’s plastic demand in 2016, according to manufacturers association Plastics Europe.

Eurostat data show that the production of plastic packaging materials has increased steadily since the second half of 2011. This reflects a stronger economy, but also more specific trends such as a need for food packaged to be eaten on-the-go, and the growth of online shopping.

There are undoubtedly areas where plastics have been used gratuitously, and where improvements can be made to limit the environmental impact. But items are packaged in a way that reflects customers’ demands for protection, freshness and convenience and plastic offers many advantages as a packaging material.

Plastic industry participants argue that an approach aimed at improving disposal methods and increasing recycling, rather than simply trying to stop using plastic, is more sustainable. The EU’s recently-launched strategy to tackle plastic waste seems to share this view, but more details are needed before it satisfies the growing clamour for change.

The strategy appears geared towards solving the problem of plastic packaging being discarded after a single use, rather than attempting to replace them altogether, although curbs are proposed on single-use plastics such as drinking straws.

It outlines plans to work with manufacturers of plastics products to introduce rules aimed at obligating companies to design packaging that is durable or more easily recyclable.

Measures would presumably include restrictions on additives and mixing of materials. Mono-material products are easier to recycle with no need to separate different resins, although multi-layer films are said to make a big difference to the shelf-life of a product.

Paper coffee cups lined with a thin plastic film have come under particular scrutiny owing to the difficulty of separating the paper and plastic in the recycling process.

But many converters — the companies that manufacture plastic products from resins or films — would argue that their products are already recyclable, and that the industry needs more investment in collection infrastructure and processing technology to stop potentially re-usable plastics from being discarded.

In a recent survey by industry association EuPC, almost 60pc of converters said that they struggle to get a supply of recycled plastics materials of sufficient quality for their needs.

Converters also said they need support from their customers to increase recycling. Only 27pc of those surveyed by EuPC said that their customers are “sufficiently aware of the benefits and needs” of using recyclates.

Environmentally friendly alternatives have been available for some time – biodegradable polymers, for example, have been commercially available for more than 25 years – with only limited uptake from the industry because of cost or convenience.

The commission acknowledges in its Strategy Brochure that public and private-sector investment in sorting and recycling plants is “held back by uncertainties about profitability”, particularly in the low oil-price environment of the past 2-3 years.

It has pledged an additional €100mn ($123mn) to its Horizon 2020 project, which will be devoted to measures such as those targeting the design phase, which it hopes will raise investor confidence in recycling capacity.

But it will need to quickly provide more details of the measures to be taken if it is to keep “our environment safe whilst keeping our industry competitive,” as the commission’s first vice-president Frans Timmermans said.