Fighting ‘free-riders’ for recycled plastic

The squabble over who should have access to recycled plastic drinks bottles shifted up a gear recently with a statement from Europe’s non-alcoholic beverage industry, backed by Changing Markets Foundation and Zero Waste Europe, calling for priority access to waste PET bottles. They accuse the fashion and automotive industries, who are also purchasing waste bottles to provide their recycled content, of ‘free-riding’ and ‘greenwashing’. But there are bigger issues at play, including the inherent difficulty with plastic recycling.

The automotive and fashion industries are buying up PET recyclate, which they didn't pay towards collecting, hence the ‘free-riding’. There is also the technical argument that food contact approved material should not be used for a non-food contact application such as fashion, as it constitutes downcycling. 

This has echoes of another fight over waste materials. That time it was a disagreement over who should be given priority access to waste cooking oil to make biofuels. Those who could pay the most or those who had set up and paid for the collection? And there was a technical argument; the new use of the waste material didn’t save as much greenhouse gases as the initial use. 

There are calls for the EU to act in upcoming amendments to the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), by differentiating between ‘closing the loop’ i.e., recycling waste back into its original use, and downcycling to other applications.  But there will be a problem with this proposal if it is implemented. Plastic isn’t infinitely recyclable, so the ‘loop’ is never fully closed. Previously I have described mechanical recycling of plastic as merely extending the use phase.  Each time plastic is melted it degrades and eventually it must be downcycled or incinerated. So, if there is regulation against downcycling who will decide when the recyclate is sufficiently degraded to be eligible for a less demanding application? 

Then there is the assertion that food contact material should be kept solely for food use. This topic is problematic because of the inherent difficulties in decontaminating waste plastic. It is so challenging, some might say impossible, that packaging from non-food uses, even after it has been cleaned, is not safe for recycling to food and drink packaging. But no one talks about the contamination that used beverage bottles may pick up as they pass through a waste management facility, nor what happens if consumers use old bottles for storing non-food materials before putting them in their recycling bins. There is a fundamental risk in using any mechanically recycled plastic for food and drink. Some argue that mechanical recyclate should only be used for household and personal care products. 

Chemical recycling doesn’t have these issues and some brand owners are moving towards such a solution.  Not only does chemical recycling produce clean recyclate, but it also gets round the problem of loss of physical properties, which occurs with mechanical recycling. Beverage producers could also use chemical recyclate. Alternatively, they could swap some products to aluminium cans which are infinitely recyclable and have an established recycling infrastructure. There is even a paper beverage bottle under development.  But these solutions are costly.  

This sort of fight for the best and cheapest recycled content is likely to become more common. The beverage industry’s calls for action from regulators may not be answered. These same regulators are also listening to the recycling industry which requires a stable, high price to increase investment in more collection and sorting facilities. 

A better answer to the problem of free-riding is to require all industries to pay towards the recycling of their products at end-of-life. Extended producer responsibility rules for the textiles sector will be included in an upcoming revision of the Waste Framework Directive in 2023. If polyester textiles are more costly to recycle than polyester (PET) bottles, then increased costs should be levied on the textiles sector. 

As the circular economy becomes a reality and recycling mandates bite, then markets will be affected, and the real cost of recycling will work its way into packaging and products. So, whatever the outcome of the current squabble, beverage manufacturers are likely to face higher costs for recycled content in the future. Even if their arguments sound convincing on the surface, they are fighting a losing battle to keep the status quo. 

Published: 9 May 22

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