Big brands’ thirst for recycled plastic is good news

Coca Cola UK has recently declared that they will be using recycled PET from beverage bottles to replace virgin plastic in some products. All on-the-go bottles across the entire range in Great Britain are to be made with 100% recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate).  Lego is trying out the same recycled PET for its iconic bricks, in its search for a more sustainable alternative to new plastic.  Both will be using food contact approved recycled PET. But this material is in short supply with prices at an all time high. The elevated price is bad news for Coca Cola and Lego but good news for recyclers and recycling. 

A combination of consumer pressure and government measures to encourage the uptake of recycled plastic is finally having an impact in the market. So demand is increasing but the supply of good quality recyclate is not sufficient to meet it.  A stable, high price might just encourage more companies to get involved in the collection and sorting of waste material, as it has in other sectors. Incentives to use waste oils in the biofuels sector have raised prices and kick started a whole network of small companies collecting used cooking oil from restaurants and factories around Europe. 

The next step is to encourage households and companies to do more separation of their own waste. Supermarkets are taking up the challenge. Co-op in the UK is rolling out an in-store collection system for plastic bags and flexible packaging to 1,500 stores by the end of July. After all, it is good business to attract the environmentally conscious consumer to your store to drop off waste packaging, as they are likely to buy a few items while they are there. Other supermarkets will be doing the same. The concept is well established in parts of the US. There is a helpful ‘How2Recycle’ Store Drop-Off label to guide consumers.  Industrial waste collection is already well organised and now it is scaling up. There are dedicated waste collectors for agricultural, automotive and industrial packing plastic. 

A further challenge to overcome is the shortage of food contact approved recyclate of all types, including the recycled PET targeted by Coca Cola and Lego. Companies are currently testing the advanced labelling and sorting technology that could help. Bar codes or fluorescent markers on food containers could enable sorting machines to distinguish between, for example, a mayonnaise bottle and a laundry detergent container made from the same type of plastic. In Europe at least, you can’t recycle laundry detergent containers back into new mayonnaise bottles so most mixed plastic waste is currently downgraded to less demanding, non-food applications. So sustained higher prices could promote the further development and uptake of these new technologies.

There are positive signs that requirements for recycled content, taxes on virgin plastic packaging and other measures are creating the market incentives for more plastic recycling in Europe. The Circular Economy needs more collection and better sorting of waste plastic. The technical and logistical solutions are ready to be scaled up. So, if we the consumers play our part, the rest should be child’s play. 

Published: 13 July 21

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