Europe’s recycling markets at risk of post-consumer bale shortages because of coronavirus

Matt Tudball


LONDON (ICIS)–Security of post-consumer waste supply across parts of Europe is at risk from coronavirus restrictions due to lack of manpower, sources in the recycled plastics market said this week.

Post-consumer bales (PCB) is the major feedstock for all recycled polymer chains, although post-industrial material is also used as a feedstock for some major polymers. The largest recycled polymer markets globally are recycled polyethylene terephthalate (R-PET), recycled polyethylene (R-PE) and recycled polypropylene (R-PP).

PCB are collected either via deposit return scheme (DRS) – predominant in countries such as Germany – or curb-side collection, which is predominant in countries such as France and the UK. Curb-side collection systems across Europe are largely controlled by local authorities, although often contracted out to private waste-management firms.

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across Europe, waste collection in some countries has been impacted either as a result of sickness in the workforce, or as waste collection companies have actively reduced manpower to restrict contact.

Across Europe, different governments and municipalities have handled the issue in different ways. Last month, France started to collect PCB alongside household waste – PCB and household waste used to be collected on separate days – to reduce the amount of manpower needed, with priority given to household waste.

On Tuesday, the UK government issued non-statutory guidelines to local councils and waste collection companies advising household waste should be prioritised, but that “local authorities should seek to maintain current waste services as far as possible, including the separate collection of food waste and of dry recyclable materials”.

The UK guidelines classified residual (black bag) and food waste as high priority, and dry recyclable waste, collected on a fortnightly basis, as medium. Weekly collection of dry recyclable waste was categorised as low priority, with a suggestion that weekly collection could be scaled back to fortnightly.

In making its suggestions on dry recyclable collection, the website warned: “Householders may take time to revert to recycling once normal service is resumed if collections are interrupted for a significant length of time.

“Recyclate is an important source of raw materials for new packaging and if removed supply chain gaps might appear.”

Although waste collection in the UK is devolved to local authorities, and the government advice is not binding, multiple local authorities have already stopped collecting recycling, and the government advice could encourage other local authorities to follow suit.

“The government saying mixed recyclables [are] a low priority was not ideal. We can keep the plant running for a period of time, our bigger problem is making sure that we can get enough staff – there’s a risk of social distancing impact on collection,” a major UK waste collector said.

In Eastern Europe, sources in the R-PET market said they are seeing reductions in collection of feedstock PCB, which is leading to closures in sorting facilities that would normally process PCB.

“Many sorting centres in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary are closed…because of COVID-19,” a buyer of PCB in the region said.

Demand for R-PET that is used in food application end-use markets is strong because of consumer demand for packaged goods and water bottles, but converters are struggling to get enough material.

“I see that some flakes producers are trying to find sources of [PCB] bales wherever they can, including starting to look outside of Europe for feedstock,” a trader said.

In March, several sorting centres in France had to close as a result of the coronavirus, though some have since re-opened as the waste collection system adapts to the challenges caused by the virus.

Nevertheless, this is expected to limit feedstock volumes across the country.

“There will be a shortage of material to be processed, sorting systems are closed and the collection is stuck in many parts of France. We think we’ll lose about 50% of the material we normally put in our plants,” a major French polyolefins reprocessor said.

Nevertheless, there is typically a lag between initial collection and material making its way through the recycling chain. Coupled with this, demand for non-packaging material is falling from industries such as construction and automotive – key end-users of recycled polyolefins – because of coronavirus-linked shutdowns. As a result, limited feedstock supply is not expected to be felt in affected countries until May.

In countries such as Germany, which rely on the DRS system for most of their recyclate feedstock, the picture is slightly different. Consumers are buying plastics goods, but may be storing them at home rather than depositing them, especially if they are in lockdown or avoiding public places.

“The virus makes people stay at home, and buy PET bottles and store them at home, especially for those trying to protect themselves,” a plastics recycler said.

“Are these people not bringing PET back [to DRS machines] because they don’t want to stand in line?” it added.

As with most issues related to the coronavirus currently, it will be a matter of time before it is seen just how big an impact the pandemic will have on waste collection systems across Europe, and ultimately, what this means in terms of availability of recyclate and its impact on sustainability targets.

Focus article by Matt Tudball and Mark Victory


Global News + ICIS Chemical Business (ICB)

See the full picture, with unlimited access to ICIS chemicals news across all markets and regions, plus ICB, the industry-leading magazine for the chemicals industry.

Contact us

Partnering with ICIS unlocks a vision of a future you can trust and achieve. We leverage our unrivalled network of industry experts to deliver a comprehensive market view based on independent and reliable data, insight and analytics.

Contact us to learn how we can support you as you transact today and plan for tomorrow.