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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Recycled Plastic Certifications Are Stifling Innovation

Recycled plastic certification makes sense. Manufacturers need confidence that the raw materials they’re acquiring meet their requirements and are truly recycled. But more certifications likely means higher costs and thus less recycled plastic.

At face value, the idea of recycled ocean plastic certification makes sense. Manufacturers need assurances that the material they’re receiving will perform as expected. Consumers deserve to know the products they select — and may pay a premium for — are, indeed, made as advertised

However, the preponderance of new certifications in the recycled plastics industry is rapidly adding cost and complexity. This makes recycled materials less competitive and drives cost-conscious manufacturers to stick with virgin plastics. The desire to guarantee quality and provenance could very well be stifling the momentum in the recycled plastic sector.  

A higher standard

Choosing recycled plastic is a very intentional decision for brands and manufacturers. They’re taking on additional complexity in their supply chain to improve their environmental footprint or satisfy consumers demanding products that help the planet. 

It is generally simpler — and often cheaper — to source virgin plastics. Virgin plastic is readily available, uniform in quality by design, and less subject to supply chain disruption. And, not without a tinge of irony, it’s important to note that virgin plastics often don’t require any certification. This increases their price advantage, simplifies sourcing decisions, and continues to make virgin plastic the default choice.

Recycled plastic certification makes sense. Manufacturers need confidence that the raw materials they’re acquiring meet their requirements and are truly recycled. No one wants a proliferation of products that fail in the field or are “greenwashed” while actually using virgin plastic.

Certification has the potential to serve as the insurance policy that gets many brands “over the hump” to embrace recycled plastic as a viable material in their supply chain. But the inconsistency and confusion created by having multiple certifications on the market creates audit fatigue among suppliers, who are struggling to compete in an emerging industry.

Too many seals of approval

When multiple organizations offer similar types of certifications, nobody wins. These overlapping-yet-inconsistent certifications increase the cost and time required to get recycled materials into products. It creates a confusing maze, adding additional hurdles for no tangible benefits.

Ultimately, this results in higher prices for consumers and fewer brands willing to take on the added burden of utilizing recycled plastic. This challenge is especially acute in ocean plastic. It hurts the cause, stifles momentum, and ultimately means that more plastic waste is left in the environment. Quantity does not equal quality in this case, and the existence of so many competing certifications dilutes their value and prevents any particular one from gaining traction.

Standards already in place

Instead of adding an extra layer of bureaucracy and cost to the supply chain, the recycled plastic ecosystem can rely on some of the existing industry standards already in place, which are followed by many suppliers.

The Global Recycling Standard (GRS), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and NSF offer respected programs for assuring the validity and quality of recycled plastic. They cover important aspects of the material — including traceability, environmental principles, social responsibility, chemical content and labeling.

We at Oceanworks believe these industry standards are more than sufficient to ensure recycled plastic is being sourced responsibly and meets the quality requirements of manufacturers and brands. Burdening suppliers with additional certification requirements bogs down the supply chain, discouraging new players from entering the market.

Every plastic recycler, and especially every recycled ocean plastic supplier, benefits from having a current audit on file. This provides a seal of approval for the company and indicates that they have processes for maintaining consistent quality and determining the provenance of the recycled plastic. 

Fewer tollbooths, faster time to market

While many businesses have made commitments to sustainability, they are ultimately profit-driven. For firms striving to achieve both goals, it must be as easy and inexpensive as possible to incorporate recycled material into their supply chain.

It’s important to remember that recycled plastic faces the same challenges as other sustainable initiatives and must be cost-competitive with alternatives. Just as renewable energy is most competitive when oil prices are high, recycled plastic is also subject to market forces.

Each certification costs money, chipping away at supplier margins. While some brands will pay a premium for recycled plastic, at a certain point it is cost-prohibitive. Recycled plastic will not truly take off until suppliers can consistently meet the quality and cost of virgin alternatives, or until regulation mandates increased use of recycled plastic. 

A sustainable path forward

Everyone, except petrochemical companies, wants to see more recycled plastic content. But the convergence of good intentions and opportunism in the area of certifications is continuing to increase the cost and complexity of bringing recycled ocean plastic products to market. 

Existing standards are more than sufficient to promote the quality and authenticity of supply. More certifications likely means higher costs and thus less recycled plastic. Streamlining is needed. Let’s align around fewer standards and make progress together to advance the cause.