Even simple wrapping solutions to protect a product have developed into an elaborate melange of different laminations, coatings and additives in recent decades. And no other material on this planet is more difficult to differentiate – even for experts. Transparent wrapping can be polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or even general-purpose polystyrene (PS). But separating these plastics is key, because processing them together makes the recyclate contaminated beyond reusability.
No wonder that, given this complexity, only 2 to 5% of flexible plastic (depending on the statistics you want to believe) is currently recycled – and even this is reverse engineered only once. While flexible plastic makes up only 35% of all plastic produced, it accounts for 50% of plastic waste, according to UN statistics. Things don’t look any better on the other side of the value chain: when you talk to professionals in the packaging industry, they will tell you that prices for food-grade, high-quality recycled plastics are significantly above those of virgin materials. “There is simply no business case for recycled materials in the packaging industry,” one CEO told me at an industry meeting a couple of weeks ago. “Yet,” he added with some optimism.
But it’s not the waste management industry that is to blame for this failure. To get the plastic circular economy up and running, the whole supply chain – from raw materials suppliers to manufacturers, consumers, logistics and recycling – has to be reinvented. For the world to cope with the constant growth of plastic waste, there will have to be a myriad of solutions (like compostable bioplastics, the topic of our cover story).
However, the key to successful recycling is held by the packaging industry: while many industries such as automotive or electronics most certainly benefit from advanced plastics, comparatively, packaging for everyday items does not require the same level of complexity. Mono-material flexible packaging, combined by transparent recycling codes for consumers to understand and separate, could give the global circulation a decisive boost. Setting global standards would be up to politicians. The global waste management industry – from collection to sorting and mechanical or chemical recycling – is ready to do its part.
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