The plastics industry is changing - because it has to

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. “We've got 18 months to work this out,” he warned, “Because if we don't do it, 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 which 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 is 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%, and 55% in the UK. The European country PET collection rates range 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 R-PET product specification continue to present as many challenges as opportunities for one of the most developed recycled markets in the plastic industry.” Added McGeough.

Mark 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.

The attached article is based on presentations and interviews at the Circularity for Polymers: The ICIS Recycling Conference which took place in Berlin.