The perfect storm for a recycling paradigm shift

In light of the BPF’s new recycling roadmap, Professor Edward Kosior, managing director at Nextek, highlights how a holistic approach to recycling is essential in order to reach the targets that have been set.


he British Plastics Federation (BPF) recently published a recycling roadmap for 2030 that estimates the advances in capability and efficiency of mechanical recycling technologies will deliver more than three times our current 2020 capacity – from 16% in 2020 to 50% by 2030.

This is an ambitious mission, but if we are to redress the environmental imbalance we have caused we have few options left to us. According to the BPF’s report, if all plastic were recycled globally, this could result in annual savings of 30-150 million tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to shutting 8-40 coal-fired power plants globally.

Building the kind of green economy the BPF envisions requires both simple and cutting edge technology to unlock the potential built into plastics materials that, up until now, have been dug-up, used, then ‘discarded’.

This means closing the loop on plastics of all types, which requires a behavioural shift, the introduction of new technology, and deliberate design for circular economy recycling.

Back in 2018, 70 brand owners and organisations pledged for recycled content, generating a demand in Europe for 10 million tonnes per year of recycled plastics by 2025 in order to address their targets related to greater sustainability and carbon neutrality.

Despite this, the current capacity is projected to grow to just over 6.4 million tonnes requiring a further capacity expansion of over 60% in 4 more years.

Archaic recycling systems and poor design

Today’s plastic recycling system is failing us: whilst 20% of plastic enters recycling systems, after accounting for sorting and recycling losses only 15% of global plastic waste is actually being recycled. The pathway to an efficient circular economy is still blocked by archaic ways of designing products and the mechanisms of material collection and recycling.

To achieve carbon neutrality, as well as benefitting from the properties and economics of plastics, we must increase the recovery of valuable resources, boost recycled materials, reduce landfill, and de-carbonise the waste-to-energy industry.

If we are to meet the BPF’s goals we should be recycling all packaging produced by retailers. Placing recycling at the heart of packaging design is key, yet many brand owners are still reticent to make many meaningful changes.

The pathway to an efficient circular economy is still blocked by archaic ways of designing products and the mechanisms of material collection and recycling.

Despite claims to the contrary, few packaging recycling features run very deep and those that are bolted on are unlikely to be clearly thought through. Efficient recycling formulations are few and far between.

The majority of packaging items on our shelves have been designed with the primary purpose to engage with the consumer, protect the contents within, and telling a strong brand story.

Most materials have been designed to be processed only once and recycling features that minimise recycling complexity and create closed-loop opportunities are woefully low on the list of priorities.

Narrowing the wide range of polymers used in packaging and using mono-polymer composition would also greatly benefit the technical and economic performance of recycling operations.

If well-considered, a fully recyclable pack should barely deviate from the original design. Cost should not even be a factor as re-designing a pack or bottle to be as recyclable as possible should improve its quality and reduce its cost.

Absence of food-grade recycled polypropylene

Drilling down to specific plastics that are currently not being recycled back into food-grade packaging highlights a gap in the recycling stream: pots, tubs, and trays made from polypropylene, a highly versatile polymer that dominates this non-bottle packaging stream.

Polypropylene accounts for 20% of the world’s plastics, but currently, there is no food-grade recycled polypropylene available for use as recycled content in new packaging.

Polypropylene is found in those ‘hard to recycle’ packs such as pots, tubs, trays, and films in food packaging, as well as in non-food household and personal care products.

This is why closed-loop recycling of recycled polypropylene to food-grade packaging is more complex, due to the presence of non-food polypropylene packaging.

Currently, polypropylene packaging is either being downcycled into low-performance applications or going to waste-to-energy or landfill, thereby wasting precious resources.

The absence of food-grade recycled polypropylene means that all polypropylene food packaging is currently made from virgin plastics. This is a global problem.

For consumer safety, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) requires that recycled food-grade materials can only be made from – or at least contain more than 95% – food packaging and that recycled plastic must meet the same high standards required for virgin food-grade plastics.

The absence of food-grade recycled polypropylene means that all polypropylene food packaging is currently made from virgin plastics. This is a global problem.

If we can create a circular economy for food-grade polypropylene packaging waste we would be able to reduce the production of virgin plastics from petrochemicals, in turn reducing CO2 emissions and diverting waste from both landfill and lower-quality plastics.

Retailers and brands seeking to meet the 30% recycled material target by 2025 and avoid the UK’s plastic packaging tax would see immediate benefits and we already have the cutting-edge technology to identify, sort, and decontaminate post-consumer plastic waste to achieve this.

Sorting is not sorted

Whilst some discussions around innovative sorting technologies have started emerging, it is vital we take a holistic approach to recycling technologies.

Otherwise, we will create multiple sub-categories of packaging in response to the perception that sorting will have the capacity to create narrower fractions of materials.

While this is generally helpful, it reduces recycling productivity and efficiency, at which point the economics will diminish and issues of cross-contamination will increase.

As a consequence, the likes of powerful UV-fluorescent markers or digital markers that identify and separate food-grade packaging will only have an impact if we continue the journey to decontaminate and turn the well-sorted post-consumer plastic waste back into high quality recycled mono-polymers that can be reused in new products.

Never before have we seen such dramatic changes to the way the recycled plastics market has grown in value and volume.

High performance decontamination technologies that have been shown to remove all possible contaminants to very high levels, to ensure compliance with EFSA and USFDA food-contact, are required to deliver the penultimate stage of recycling.

Taking a holistic approach to recycling that combines sorting with decontamination is instrumental in closing the loop on the likes of polypropylene and other plastics.

However, to be truly effective, it requires all packaging to be designed for optimum recyclability. Otherwise, the next cycle’s quality will be compromised and may be expensive to operate.

Simple packaging can mean simpler recycling equipment and lower processing costs.

Never before have we seen such dramatic changes to the way the recycled plastics market has grown in value and volume. The entire recycling ecosystem is undergoing a fundamental transformation spurred by a growing demand for high quality, post-consumer recycled materials.

Achieving the BPF’s mission for a cleaner, more sustainable future is possible with concerted action for all stakeholders – there certainly is a sense that the perfect storm for plastics recycling is here.

We now need to align higher recovery rates, better designed products, and cutting-edge technologies with improved consumer behaviour to make the required paradigm shift.