INSIGHT: Plastics recycling facing many battles, but major opportunities too

Egor Dementev


LONDON (ICIS)–Despite the current gloomy macro environment for plastics recycling in Europe, this challenging period might also become a good time and and provide the opportunity to move the sustainability agenda forward.

  • Recycling prospects positive despite gloomy macro environment
  • Focused attention required on consumers, investment, legislation and data
  • Plastic should be part of sustainable materials mixture

New governmental policies, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) programmes across Europe, development of advanced mechanical (including new technologies like tray-to-tray recycling) and chemical recycling as well as other projects all offer help in finding solutions to tackle plastic waste.

This was a common theme amongst several different speakers representing the whole value chain and appeared in line with the industry’s long-term agenda at at the RECOUP Plastics Resource and Recycling Conference held in September.

Consumers should play a critical part in the ongoing changes. This means increasing consumer awareness about their plastic waste, including why polymers with a low carbon footprint relative to other materials should be the solution, rather than a problem.

Additionally, stakeholders should invest in educating citizens on best practice for waste management, such as how to properly separate waste at source (at home), and which fractions to bring to collection points, etc.

One of the pain points is still the labelling approach which often confuses the consumers when it comes to proper disposal of their waste.

There were different examples highlighted by speakers at the meeting, such as how labelling practices vary across different markets or even within one national market.

Other issues are that some icons on packaging resemble the recycling symbol but have no real connection to recyclability, and how bio- or compostable plastics are widely positioned as a sustainable alternative to fossil-fuel based material,

However, when it comes to bio- or compostable alternatives, there is almost no communication on packaging that these products should not be disposed of via household recycling bins because they normally contaminate the recycling process when mixed together with traditional plastics.

‘Who should pay?’ is one of the most popular questions in the recycling industry.

Predictably, there is no easy answer as any investment is determined by various factors. For example, as speakers pointed out, large producers (petrochemical companies, brand-owners, etc.) are investing in chemical recycling now, but those investments should be supported by adoption of new regulation and public support for such projects.

Recycling investments are also essentially subject to the typical chicken-egg problem in business.

To start an investment project a company should be able to secure enough feedstock to run the plant, which requires investment into collection and sorting. At the same time, to start investing into collection and sorting infrastructure, waste managers would like to make sure they will be able to find enough end-use demand before doing so.

Waste management and recycling are generally expected to be strictly regulated to prevent malpractice. However, the regulation should also create further incentives for broader implementation of the waste hierarchy approach, such as through adoption of collection and recycling targets as well as mandatory recycled content requirements.

Standardisation and harmonisation are key to enabling effectiveness of policy, hence the proposed consistency agenda for collection systems in the UK.

The current regulation also needs additional review as in some instances it might be considered too restrictive, e.g., the current definitions of waste might hinder entrepreneurial activity and eventually the industry’s development.

Finding this right balance between more regulation to drive positive changes and not making this regulation too restrictive at the same time should be a priority task for the legislators.

Do we have sufficient data available to enable the stakeholders make the right decisions? This question remains open even among recycling industry professionals.

The consensus here is that the only way to leapfrog is to make data-driven decisions at every step of the value chain. That applies not only to volumes and capacities data to ensure efficient investment, but also to the environmental footprint of virgin and recycled plastics based on life-cycle assessments (LCA).

The current concept of GDP growth may no longer be appropriate for describing and measuring economic growth. Rather, growth should be decoupled from increasing resource consumption, linked to finding new sources of growth and accompanied by new circular business models.

Summarising the overall message from the conference, the speakers collectively came up with what should be a good recipe for success: The overall perception needs to change from ‘plastic is bad’, but not just to ‘plastic waste is bad’, but rather to the idea that ‘plastic pollution is bad’. With this mindset, plastics themselves might be seen as a valid part of the future sustainable materials mixture.

The Annual RECOUP Plastics Resource and Recycling Conference took place on 29 September 2022 in Peterborough, UK.

Insight by Egor Dementev


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