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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
The Plastics Industry Is Changing — Because It Has to

The plastics industry has become acutely self-aware. Directive targets must be met; new processes researched, developed and launched; and consumer education delivered. And looming over all of this is the spectre of sustainability, and the demonisation of plastics.

That’s the general consensus among some of Europe’s leading plastic industry commentators — the very people working to reshape the industry.

While plastic in its myriad forms is ingrained in every aspect of our life, ‘plastiphobia’ has entered the vernacular as a condition, and regulators are cracking down hard on an industry that already faces a number of complex challenges.

But plastiphobia shouldn’t be a thing. Plastic should not be demonised; rather, it should be treated like the crux of modern living that it is. The problem is not with plastic per se, rather the recycling of plastic and its inappropriate usage.

The plastics industry has become acutely self-aware, and some might even say introspective. Directive targets must be met; new processes researched, developed and launched; and consumer education delivered and expectations met. And looming over all of this is the spectre of sustainability, and the demonisation of plastics.

Speaking at Circularity for Polymers: The ICIS Recycling Conference in Berlin earlier this month, International E-Chem Chairman Paul Hodges said there’s an awful lot of work to do in a very limited time.

“It’s very clear there's a paradigm shift going on in the industry. Companies are waking up to the fact that waste plastics are a really big issue — one that’s not going to go away. Single-use plastics are going to be in the firing line for the next few years — and business models simply must change,” he emphasised.

Hodges added that at the core of the shift required is the fact that people don’t know how to recycle plastics, but they do understand why we need to: “We haven't got the technology available. We haven't got the collection processes setup. We need to move away from throwing rubbish away at waste sites and focus instead on developing resource centres, based on a distributed network of local chemical recycling plants.”

That move to smaller, local chemical recycling plants — which are more efficient and effective at separating out the different types of plastic to help better achieve the dream of a circular economy — is certainly on the horizon, yet still only a nascent industry.

Richard Daley, Managing Director of ReNew ELP, is at the forefront of chemical recycling. The company is in the final stages of development on the first of four chemical recycling processing lines, with each line processing 20,000 tonnes a year. Its Cat-HTR™ technology utilises what Daley describes as “a unique, hydrothermal upgrading process, using supercritical water to break down plastics into reusable, valuable chemicals and oils.”

Interestingly, target feedstock for processing is the residual plastic after mechanical recycling has taken place — such as flexible, multi-layer films — and ReNew ELP sees itself as complementary to the mechanical recycling process.

Echoing Daley, ICIS’ Senior Editor of Recycling, Mark Victory, said: “Chemical recovery is better in theory, but there are issues with cost and yield. In theory, it’s good, but there are still the same challenges of collection, and it will be five to ten years — an optimistic estimate — before we see large—scale chemical recovery.”

Victory identified another hurdle, in that collection is simply not big enough. He says local authorities — where most responsibility for household waste collection lies — have been underfunded since the global economic downturn more than a decade ago, and investment in infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing complexity of packaging as a result. And that domestic issue is further exacerbated by China’s decision to stop taking waste plastics from the rest of the world.

“Investment in waste collection hasn’t kept pace with the increasing complexity of packaging,” Victory explained. “And since China stopped accepting waste, there’s more contamination in our domestic recycling — wastage rates have increased; China used to take the lower-quality waste material — which they could use in industries such as textile — but is now being incorporated into domestic bales. The scale of demand and size of the undersupply is also meaning material is having to be produced at maximum capacity and stretched further, which also has an impact on contamination levels. In recycled PET, for example, we’ve seen wastage rates increase from 25 percent in 2009 to 30-35 percent, currently.”

Hodges added that what the industry urgently needs is project teams to work out how to produce more sustainable product and better recycling collection and processing facilities.

“If we don't do [work this out], brand owners are going to say, ‘look, we've made a commitment to the consumers to have done this by 2025. You're not moving, so we're going to have to do something else.’ We have six years to work this out — and we don’t know what to do.”

Hodges feels the brand owners that have committed to the 2025 deadline need reassurance from the plastics industry: “We need to reach out to brand owners and say we have got the technology sorted out, the business model sorted out and the finance sorted out; so, trust us — we will now deliver so you can deliver what you need to do,” he said.

ICIS’ Senior Analyst of Plastics Recycling, Helen McGeough, explained: “Plastic packaging is more complex than ever before; modern packaging has moved beyond just functionality to a marketing tool. But we need to strip it back to a simpler level and encourage recycling concepts at the design stage.

“The EU has set the bar high with the Single-Use Plastic Directive, requiring higher collection rates even with 2018 recovery rates for PET bottles in Europe at 63 percent, and 55 percent in the UK. The European country PET collection rates vary across member states, reflecting the differences in systems, consumer participation and government ability to prioritise investment in waste management. This lack of standardisation in everything from waste infrastructure to final rPET product specification continue to present as many challenges as opportunities for one of the most developed recycling markets in the plastic industry,” McGeough added.

Victory stated that: “The sector needs heavy investment, to catch up across the entire chain. There’s no point in everyone wanting to recycle if the infrastructure isn’t there. We are relying on people to understand and embrace recycling systems — which is hard to predict. There’s a strong education element to it. For most people, plastic is simply plastic — they are unaware of the different types and what to do with it.”

Hodges concurred on the need for investment, emphatically suggesting the industry needs to provide funding: “The amounts the industry is committing to this sea change is next to nothing — 25 million here, ten million there. Come on, guys — you know we're talking about a hundred billion industry here. You can't start with pocket money!”

Hodges sees the biggest industry challenge — and, perhaps, opportunity — as the shift from massive mechanical recycling plants to smaller, local chemical recycling plants. “The new industry business model is small scale and local; whereas for the last 30 to 40 years, all we’ve talked about is massive and global — and this is a complete game changer,” he concluded.