Trash Talking: Pondering Plastics

Reforming the design and disposal methods of packaging has an essential role to play in reducing waste plastic.

If allowed to enter the environment, waste plastics have the potential to leach toxic substances to land and sea, and pose a significant threat to wildlife. However, over recent decades the use of plastics has snowballed. WMW asked a number of industry experts how the recycling rate for waste plastics can be increased?

  Nick Brown
Associate Director for Recycling, Coca-Cola Enterprises GB Better Incentives Needed More Waste Management World Articles

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Trash Talking: Pondering Plastics

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Reforming the design and disposal methods of packaging has an essential role to play in reducing waste plastic. Whilst it is impossible not to use packaging for products such as soft drinks, it is important to ensure such materials are used, and reused, in an efficient and sustainable way.

Ensuring design for recyclability and having an understanding of product end-of-life are two fundamental factors for driving the reuse and recycling of plastics. The use of compostable materials for example is not a simple solution as they can contaminate established plastics recycling schemes.

In GB today, 58% of plastic bottles are now collected for recycling. Whilst progress has been made in improving awareness of the importance of recycling, there is still work to be done. When it comes to behaviour change, as an industry we should be focusing our efforts on two distinct groups: non-recyclers and litterers.

Earlier this year, we commissioned some research with YouGov which found that around three quarters (76%) of British consumers claim to "always" recycle plastic bottles at home, with 64% viewing recycling as "a moral and environmental duty". In spite of this however, recycling rates in GB remain below the European average, so we are currently working with the University of Exeter to better understand the dynamics that drive recycling behaviours.

With regards to 'litterers', it is important to draw a distinction between the actions of people that fall into this category and the items they irresponsibly discard. Industry, local government and facilities managers can all play a crucial role in ensuring there is good collection infrastructure in place, but society has to work together to ensure people understand how unacceptable it is to litter.

In terms of collection and reprocessing, responsible packaging users will increasingly want to reclaim materials to produce new packaging items. In addition to consumer awareness initiatives, Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) has also made a significant long-term investment in GB recycling infrastructure.

Last year, we launched Continuum Recycling, a joint venture with ECO Plastics, which reprocesses nearly half of all the plastic bottles collected in GB and has enabled CCE to meet the objective of including 25% recycled PET in all its bottles by 2012.

Overall change within the recycling industry - particularly when it comes to plastics - can ultimately be driven more quickly by some simple improvements to the UK's Packaging Producer Responsibility (PRN) scheme. Efforts to better incentivise design for recyclability will make a difference, as will redirecting funds to specific activities such as communications campaigns, collection scheme expansions and more stringent enforcement activities.

Quantity and Quality go Hand in Hand   Felix Hottenstein
Felix Hottenstein, sales director, MSS

There are several key factors to make the recovery of plastics from source-separated or mixed waste streams more economically feasible. The most important ones are the increase in quantity and quality of collected recyclables.

A strong focus on consumer education, possibly combined with economic or legislative incentives, could increase plastics recovery rates to higher levels. Higher quantities make it more feasible to install large, more automated systems that achieve lower processing and sorting cost on a per-ton basis. A higher quality of collected material means lower amounts of contaminants in the incoming stream which in turn allows a higher quality final product to be generated by an automated sorting system.

Furthermore, whether on the packaging or, especially, the engineering plastics side, using fewer resins and colour types of plastics will make it easier and less expensive to recover more plastics. Overall recyclability can improved by reducing the number of plastics as end markets for marginal polymer types may be limited and those materials lost to energy uses.

Sensor-based optical sorting technologies have many key advantages over manual sorting systems, especially where manual sorting labour is too expensive or humans can simply are not able to perform the task. MSS' state-of-the-art optical sorters use high-resolution near-infrared (NIR) and colour spectrometers and cameras to classify and separate the targeted plastic categories on wide and very fast moving conveyor belts. With today's available computing power, sophisticated software algorithms allow for the precise identification of the individual resins and colours (in any combination) as well as the accurate ejection by high-pressure air jets. This allows for the sorting of plastics in higher quality and quantity than previously possible.

Across different applications such as extracting mixed or individual plastics from dirty MSW streams, sorting HPDE bottles from commingled collections, purifying PET flake and pellets, or separating ABS polymers from mixed electronic scrap - the overall recovery yield can be improved significantly by adding automated sensor-based sorting systems.

The technology to extract and further separate plastics from the many varieties of waste streams, as described above, is available today. However in some cases, implementing a fully automated solution due to the low intrinsic value per ton of certain types of plastics (e.g. LDPE film) vs. other higher value plastics (e.g. durable plastics from electronic scrap) may not be feasible. Or in other words, while today's technology is capable of recovering and further segregating plastics automatically at all stages of the recycling chain, in some applications it may be cost prohibitive.

For the future, a few challenges will still exist: Firstly, the efficient sorting of individual black plastics on a commercial scale has yet to be proven and a solution here would significantly increase the recovery rates in electronics scrap, auto shredder residue, and other non-packaging applications (toys, small appliances, etc.). Secondly, the extraction of valuable plastics from dirty MSW streams still needs to be increased and, without a doubt, only a combination of more advanced mechanical and sensor-based sorting technology will succeed.

The Importance of Targets   Shailendra Mudgal
Director, Bio Intelligence Service

The use of natural resources globally is expected to quadruple by 2050 and at the current rate of depletion, the world cannot satisfy demand for resources from virgin materials alone. Recycling has been at the centre of environmental policy for several decades and the use of waste as a resource has been highlighted again by the EU Resource Efficiency roadmap.

The nature and amount of recycling in a given geographical area depends on different factors such as material composition of products, waste collection schemes, and different technologies of recycling. The overall success of a recycling stream is driven by appropriate public policies, an efficient and well organised value chain, and conscientious consumers. In the case of plastics, some progress has been made in recent years but the amount of the collected plastics which is recycled in the EU is only 24%.

Until now, plastic has not been addressed head on by European waste legislation, mainly because it is a horizontal waste stream that cuts across several sectors and waste types. The European Commission's 2013 Green Paper on a European strategy on plastic waste in the environment is an important initiative in rectifying this. In analysing the results of an online consultation on the Green Paper, we found innovative suggestions from hundreds of stakeholders across Europe, showing what a hot topic this is.

On 4 November 2013, the Commission adopted a proposal to amend the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic bags. Although a small share of waste plastic by weight, plastic bags make a disproportionate contribution to litter.

A new and more ambitious EU recycling target should be introduced that takes into account the split between domestic recycling and exports and which covers all plastics, not just packaging. Such a target should be based on realistic, transparent figures and backed by adequate resources.

An increased target under the Waste Framework Directive specific to mechanical recycling of plastics is thus the essential driver of change that is required. However, all stakeholders will need to take actions in order to meet the target. These actions span all stages of the product value chain, from production (design for recyclability) to end of life (landfill bans).

In the meantime, implementation and enforcement of current EU waste legislation needs to be improved urgently. Implementation gaps, illegal waste shipments and waste management practices that contravene EU legislation are all important barriers to recycling.

A wider review of waste legislation is planned for 2014 and we hope that our work on these topics will contribute to developing new ideas and an ambitious strategy for plastics recycling in the EU and help the EU move forward towards a resource efficient society.

Three of the most important challenges facing Europe today are reducing environmental burdens, creating new jobs and enhancing the resource base for the economy. Recycling can make a substantial contribution to addressing all three challenges: a win-win-win opportunity.

Changes to Policy and Mindset Required   Dr Mike Biddle
Founder, MBA Polymers

It's clear that we cannot continue to treat plastic waste with a casual short-term mindset. We already know that littering and improper waste disposal lead to unsightly land and seascapes. What we need to adopt is a mindset of resource conservation and recovery and the resultant economic and environmental benefits of a circular economy.

A few numbers would be helpful for perspective. The U.S. EPA estimates that of the MSW America generates, more than 65 billion pounds (29 million tonnes) per year are plastics. The U.S. has probably the highest per-capita generation rate of waste plastics in the world, it also has one of the lowest recycling rates for plastics, estimated to be about 8% by the EPA. Most of this is plastic containers.

Plastic bottles have been collected and sorted for many years, largely because they can be easily identified and segregated from mixed streams of materials by humans and/or machines. However, the recycling rate for PET and HDPE bottles is estimated to be only about 30% and this is just the collection and diversion rate, not the actual recycling rates. Actual recycling rates are lower because not everything in the bales is recycled or even recyclable. This is especially true with the mixed plastic bales which are mostly sent to developing countries for low-cost recycling. The byproducts and waste from these processors often ends of disposed of in ways that would be considered illegal in the countries from where the waste originates.

The public cares about how our stuff is made as evidenced by public outcries against companies big companies regarding working conditions in outsourced factories. However, the same attention is not given to the un-making of our stuff. We now find what I call "environmental arbitrage" is coming back to haunt us - even onto our dinner plates from fish, for example, that have ingested plastic waste and preferentially absorbed toxins from the oceans.

So how do we change this situation? Firstly, we just need to encourage two behaviours with more responsible local policies:

1. We need to consider our plastic waste as a valuable resource (it is considerably more valuable than steel on a price per weight basis) and make it easier to collect and aggregate.

2. We then need to ensure that these collected mixed plastics streams are only sent to processing facilities that meet, at a minimum, local regulations, and ideally standards we would consider minimum requirements for our own communities.

The fear is that this will raise the cost of our "End of Life resource management". Europe and other regions are discovering that their more proactive EOL resource management policies have promoted jobs and local economies by adding value locally rather than exporting wastes.

Economic Drivers   Chris Dow
CEO at Closed Loop Recycling

It's a fact that in the future our reliance on oil will be tested to the limit. One day it will no longer be available for the production of plastic materials that we have become so reliant on. But we also continue to benefit from the advantages that plastic offers us.

Key industry bodies and influencers are driving a future whereby we operate to 'a circular economy' in which the waste and resources sector evolves to collect surplus materials and reprocess them into quality products.

Driving up the quality of recycled materials is essential to achieving this shift. How materials are collected and sorted prior to reprocessing is the single most important factor driving quality. This is why in the UK it is crucial that the much touted MRF code of practice is implemented at the earliest possible date. Any further delays will leave us sadly lacking.

The UK plastics industry could thrive at the vanguard of a green manufacturing revolution which champions recycled plastics. But in order to realise this vision we need to ensure we can effectively close the loop on plastic. Over the past five years or so, UK consumers have done a fantastic job of recycling increasing amounts of plastic packaging. However, in order to truly close the loop on plastic, we need to address the creation of sustainable and solid long term markets which in turn should drive up collection rates. After all, why collect it if it isn't worth anything?

Many big brands and retailers are buying into the idea of recycled material. What we need to be doing now is really incentivising this market in the long term with updated legislation to make recycled content king.

The PRN/PERN system was originally set up to encourage recycling of materials like plastic to minimise landfill. However, the system could do with some improvements, not only to incentivise domestic recycling, but to promote the use of recycled content in packaging.

The current system offers an unfair advantage to exporters of plastic waste, whilst the UK recycling industry misses out on the chance to close the loop. A PRN system that rewards those packaging manufacturers, retailers and brands which use recycled plastic in their products is needed.

This could be achieved by allowing users of recycled content to offset this material against their PRN obligations thus creating an economic driver to bring about the best possible environmental outcome. This system could revolutionise the UK recycling industry and create many thousands of jobs. This system would help support the circular economy by increasing the incentive for producers to use recycled content.

A robust plastics recycling model of this kind will be invaluable for the industry to demonstrate that plastic is unquestionably a sustainable raw material that we, consumers and our industry partners can go on reaping the benefits of for many years to come.