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Changes in the Plastic Recycling Industry and Circular Economy in 2020

2018 left the industry dealing with the disruption caused by China closing its doors to waste. 2019 was the year circular systems began to evolve. What will 2020 hold? Damien van Leuven of Vanden Recycling investigates.

Policies and producer responsibility are in the spotlight

The UK has had a focus on EPR for some time, but we expect to see a worldwide focus on extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Leading academic and environmentalist Thomas Lindhqvist is credited with introducing the concept of EPR. He defined EPR as: “a policy principle to promote total life cycle environmental improvements of product systems by extending the responsibilities of the manufacturer of the product to various parts of the entire life cycle of the product, and especially to the take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product.” As a result, EPR shifts the responsibility and cost of the waste generated by production from taxpayers to producers.

While the UK has operated with PRN and PERN certification for a couple of decades, America is only just following suit. So far, just nine states in the USA have EPR bill in place, requiring manufacturers and retailers to contribute to the costs of collection, recycling and disposals of products and waste.

To further campaign for, and to progress policy solutions, non-profit organisation The Recycling Partnership has launched the Circular Economy Accelerator, an initiative that brings together companies to pursue policy solutions.

While attitudes and policies vary between states, a federal bill has been drafted to reduce plastic waste across North America.

The UK Parliament has also just been presented with the revised Environment Bill that is formalising a number of the discussions that have taken place in the UK in recent years.

Between the Environment Bill and expected tax measures, a few themes are emerging. Reducing single-use plastics, making plastic packaging more recyclable, increasing the use of recyclates in plastic packaging and limiting the export of recyclable plastics.

There’s a lot of detail to be settled, but given the current political landscape, it seems action is coming soon.

Retailers will bring outsourced plastic packaging business back to the UK

Through working with plastic manufacturers in the thermoforming and injection moulding industries, we understand that firms are beginning to rethink their current outsourcing.

We predict that the lack of visibility and environmental concerns of outsourcing plastic packaging supply chain from countries such as China, will influence retailers to start working with UK based manufacturers.

This enables them to have a full overview of the supply chain, achieving transparency and traceability, as well as contributing to driving forward the UK plastic recycling industry and infrastructure.

The war on single-use plastics will improve recycled material uptake

Italy has introduced a new tax on single-use plastic products without recycled content, including bottles, polyethylene bags and single-use plastic food packaging. The tax aims to combat plastic pollution and improve the environment through the reduction of plastic reduction and consumption.

The tax is fixed at 0.45EURO/MT, half the cost of the original proposal, but the Italian Government were forced to lower the amount after the pressure of producers and political centrist party.

The introduction raises the cost of virgin material between 35-50%, depending on the type of polymer used. This price increase could result in recycled plastic becoming more valuable than virgin material (pre-tax) and will drive up the use of recycled material.

Putting the onus on the public

While Vanden Recycling offers plastic recycling solutions for post-production waste, there is a wider focus on educating the public to know what to put in their recycling bins, and how to treat the material before placing it in the recycling bin.

An example of this already being enforced is in China. Policies were introduced in Shanghai last year that see citizens faced with heavy fine ‘social penalties’ if they refrain from properly sorting their waste of recyclable material. These penalties could result in individuals having their social credit rating lowered, leading to them missing out on social or economic privileges.

China’s government has divided its waste into four categories, recyclable, harmful, kitchen (food) waste and other (bathroom products). Prior to the new policies, Shanghai implemented thousands of training sessions to ensure that its people understood what was required of them.

Will we see such measures introduced into other countries? There is no denying that a lack of education is seeing contaminated and unrecyclable material finds their way into recycling bins. Will other Governments introduce the same methods to tackle post-consumer waste?

Another example of this from an alternative approach is the use of bottle return solutions, that require consumers to return their plastic bottles to be recycled. We discuss this further in our blog: How is the bottling sector reacting to the demand for plastic recycling?

The role of artificial intelligence, robotics and technology

The world is in the midst of a technological revolution, one that is beginning to penetrate the plastic recycling industry and enable MRF’s to run more efficiently.

We are beginning to see countries trial artificial intelligence and robotics when it comes to sorting recyclable materials, with prototypes using optical sensors and machine learning to deliver an automated solution to sorting materials and identifying contamination.

Other capabilities of this technologies include allowing the recovery of ‘recoverable’ material, the identification of different products made of the same material using their shape, colour or texture, the separation of plastic film from other items and the separation of silicon from other mixed polymer products.

Another example of AI being used in recycling is the hundreds of AI-enabled apps that were released in China in response to the introduction of the new waste policies. The apps enable citizens to scan items that they are unsure of and will assist them in sorting the item into the correct category.

The reusing of materials and packaging will improve through collaboration

We expect to see members of the supply chain form partnerships with brands and retailers to overcome the challenges around materials and polymers.

Companies are beginning to understand how to best respond to consumer demand and meet packaging targets for the inclusion of recycled content, creating solutions using supply chain partners. One example of this is packaging being designed with end-use in mind, resulting in barrier layers and the use of multiple polymers, that often prevent recycling, being rethought.

Our Think Beginning Not End podcast covers the topic of designing packaging for end-use with the founder of PREP Design, Anthony Peyton in episode one.

To learn more about how the team at Vanden Recycling can enable you to improve your plastic recycling solution as well as gain full transparency and traceability of your supply chain, contact us today.

Written by Damien van Leuven
CEO at Vanden Recycling

 

For more blog articles like this one, visit the Vanden Knowledge Centre.

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