INSIGHT: European plastic bottle recycling held back by structural shortage of feedstocks

Helen McGeough


LONDON (ICIS)–Results of the ICIS study of the R-PET industry in 2019 show that progress to greater circularity of resources has been made but challenged in equal measures.

Europe has a target of 77% collection of plastic bottles by 2025, under the Single Use Plastic (SUP) Directive.  The ICIS study shows collection volumes of post-consumer PET bottles reached 2.2m tonnes in 2019, an increase of 5% on 2018 which is the highest growth rate in several years.

However, the overall collection rate across the region increased just 1 percentage point to 64% in 2019, so over a third of post-consumer bottles remain uncollected.

Feedstock supply may have increased in volume but so too did contamination levels.

The average yield across the region was 69.5% in 2019, down from 71% in 2018. Unsurprising given the reduction of PET waste exports to China, due to the waste import ban, and pushback from other Asian markets unable and, or, unwilling to accept shipments and become a dumping ground for the rest of the world.

These typically lower quality materials have since been absorbed back into the domestic waste stream and contribute to the overall reduction in yield.

After the boom in demand for R-PET during 2018 the PET recycling industry responded by increasing capacity, by 11% in input craving greater volumes of bales and resulting in 9% growth in output compared to 2018.

Not only did collection rates not match this growth but nor did the availability of the highest quality colourless bales.  Deposit return scheme (DRS) bales represented 31.6% of the total supply compared to 33% in 2017.  DRS are highly sought by the high value and specification food contact end markets.

Overall, the region saw a recycling rate (the total volume output over the total volume of PET bottle consumption) of 46%, a rise of two percentage points on the rate in 2018.

This is a marginal improvement, but still less than half of the bottles put into the market are recycled. Given that PET is one of the most recyclable polymers in the market and the recycling infrastructure is more mature than other polymers, the question remains as to why this is not advancing to higher recycling rates.

This reflects the wider issues facing the sector in terms of a collection and sorting infrastructure managed principally by national government that have not invested in systems to manage the proliferation in waste composition and consequently can produce poor quality recyclables.  The recycling sector inherits materials with reducing yields while end users demand even higher quality R-PET output.

The key drivers to the R-PET market are brand pledges and legislation, mainly the SUP Directive which mandates the use of recycled content in bottles, pushing the supply increasingly towards the bottle market.

The bottle industry must achieve 25% recycled content in PET bottles by 2025 (under SUP Directive), and the study shows growth in the R-PET penetration of the food contact bottle market at 14.5%, rising from 10.7% in 2018.

However, this is still over 10% below the mandated target and way below the ambitions of influential brands going way beyond these levels, up to 100% for segments of their portfolios.

The study showed that in 2019 the share of R-PET supply absorbed by the food contact bottle market rose to 32% compared with 25% in 2018, reflecting this trend and pull through the supply chain from major beverage brands’ ambitions to offer more sustainable packaging for their product as consumer pressure continued to build after the extremely high profile of plastics pollution in the natural environment – often cited as the Blue Planet effect.

The shift in end market usage also highlighted the dependence of so many other applications on R-PET feedstocks, such as PET sheet, fibre, and strapping, which do not actively feed into the PET waste streams.

The PET sheet sector remained the single largest market using R-PET in 2019, with 38% share of the total supply, but was lower than the 40% share of 2018.

It can be expected that these shares will tip in favour of the bottle markets in 2020 and continue into 2021 and beyond.  It is not only the demand from the bottle sector generating this change, but the low virgin PET resin environment began to attract PET sheet users to increase the virgin content in feedstock mix at the end of 2019.  This has continued to be the driving force to the position taken by sheet producers in 2020.

So, the 2019 study shows improvement in many aspects of the R-PET supply into the market but challenges to overcome, mainly at the front end of the chain; improved collection in terms of quality as well as quantity, improved design for recycle and sorting to reduce waste rates, and growth in supply of highest quality R-PET to meet the frantic demand of bottlers.

The 2020 ICIS European RPET survey was conducted across 28 countries in western Europe, over the period April to November 2020.  Those countries include the 28 EU member states, excluding Malta and Cyprus, plus Norway and Switzerland.  The primary focus of the study was the RPET industry in 2019 with detail on each of the main elements of the supply chain: collection, recycling and end use.  The report is a collaborative effort including national authorities, compliance agencies, deposit return schemes and recyclers.

Insight by Helen McGeough


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