Bouncing Back

Rebel(lious) visions for a post-Covid-19 society

The blow to the recycling industry no one saw coming

Our Rebels Nicolein Blanksma and Reinier van der Vusse are leading lights in the circular economy. Plastic is one of those materials we both love and hate. It brings so many benefits, but also calls for seriously sustainable processing. The Covid crisis has really put our relationship with plastic under the magnifying glass. Read more to get Nicolein and Reinier’s take on this burning issue.

Just as the recycling industry was gaining momentum… Covid-19 hit

Like it or not, we will be bouncing back from the coronavirus crisis more dependent on plastic than ever. One unfortunate and perhaps unexpected impact of the worldwide pandemic is that our recycling rates have taken a nosedive. It’s time to think of ways to up our recycling game as part of our post-Covid recovery.

In recent years, plastics – and specifically single-use plastics – have become the center of attention as something we need to combat and ban. Fueled by heart-rending images of dead whales and seabirds washed ashore on beaches around the world, their insides full of plastic, public opinion on plastic use has undergone a major shift. A ban on single-use plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers is being introduced across the EU and higher recycling ambitions are being set. EU Plastic Pacts are compelling producers of packaging to set themselves voluntary targets to reduce their plastic consumption, boost recyclability and increased use of recycled plastics. Major environmental initiatives, with Ocean Clean-up leading the way, are gaining traction. All encouraging signs of progress towards a circular economy.

 

“Pandemic sets back fight against single-use plastics” (Financial Times, May 31, 2020)

 

Pre-Covid, it seemed the world was finally ready to rein in its addiction to this infinitely versatile material that has pervaded so many aspects of modern life. Then 2020 hit us with a perfect storm: an extreme drop in oil prices (making virgin fossil plastics cheap) compounded by a global pandemic. This left us with a greater and more urgent need for plastic hygiene and protection products to help us combat coronavirus, while giving us zero incentive to meet this growing demand with more costly recycled raw materials or other sustainable solutions.

 

“Coronavirus is a fatal blow for recycling.” (Kras, plastic recycler in the Netherlands)

 

The Covid crisis has highlighted our ongoing dependency on plastic as an essential material

To prevent the spread of the virus, our reflex was to scale up production of masks, gloves, separating screens, foils and other protective equipment. All products arguably best made from plastic.

Additionally, a crisis-led drop in demand dramatically slowed production in sectors such as the auto industry and outdoor furniture, which had increasingly been switching to recyclables in manufacturing their products. As a result, used plastics collected for recycling were no longer finding an outlet and will probably end up being stored, landfilled or incinerated.


The oil price drop showed us how far we are from replacing cheap virgin fossil plastics

The vast majority of plastic production is based on fossil feedstock, much of it virgin. Although the mechanical recycling industry is increasingly finding ways to substitute virgin plastics with high-quality recycled plastics, global recycling rates remain low. The current collection rate of plastic waste volumes submitted for recycling worldwide is estimated to be between 14% and 18%. Actual recycling rates could be even lower.

Promising innovations like bioplastics and chemical recycling are maturing. But now they and mechanical recycling technologies find themselves competing with a high-quality, low-priced fossil counterpart. The knock-on effect of the most recent drop in oil prices has therefore dealt a serious blow to the plastic recycling industry.

The result? Increased demand for plastics (most notably single-use plastics), a recycling industry in decline and a return to cheap fossil-based feedstock. Unless we take vigorous action, the progress made by our recycling industries will be set back years, essential investments will grind to a halt and recycling targets will not be met.


Light at the end of the tunnel: the case of (rPET) beverage bottles

Amidst all this doom and gloom in the world of plastic recycling, one specific material forms a beacon of hope. Rising like a black swan, the demand for recycled food-grade PET is in fact higher than its virgin counterpart, even during the first quarter of 2020.

Why?

European legislation has imposed a minimum of 25% and 30% recycled content in PET beverage bottles in 2025 and 2030 respectively. In response, a number of major corporations have committed themselves to an even higher percentage of recycled content in PET beverage bottles. Multinationals such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé have set the tone and are even willing to pay a premium for recycled content. While the prices of recycled plastics on the whole have shown a sharp drop, rPET has bucked the trend and remained stable. A steady and long term demand for this material, enforced by law, seems to be driving this development.

 

Where do we go from here?

Our recycling industry has been dealt some paralyzing blows. Recent investments in sorting and recycling facilities are at risk from the effects of the current crisis in combination with rock-bottom oil prices. It is by no means certain that we can keep this vital industry afloat. So now is the time to act and push forward sustainable ideas.

Let’s learn from the success of rPET and get serious about recycling. How?

  • Create a steady demand for recycled materials by setting targets to increase recycled content in the majority of plastic products.
  • Develop a watertight system for measuring the origin of the polymers in plastic products, so that claims about recycled content are verifiable.
  • Come together as public and private parties to invest in promising techniques for creating high quality recycled plastics.

Only last year, we were well on our way to achieving a better world through plastic reduction. Let’s not waste the momentum we had built up.

Want to continue the conversation?

The coronavirus crisis is having a pronounced impact on the recycling of plastics. Would you like to continue this conversation and share your thoughts on what we have to say? Perhaps you have fresh insights that might be useful to us. Give us a call or drop by for a coffee. We are open to more recycled content!

By: Reinier van der Vusse and Nicolein Blanksma

 

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