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Flipping the value of plastic waste on its head

Petainer rPET bottles virgin 25 PCR  50 PCR captioned
Challenges and opportunities in turning plastic PET waste into a viable PCR resource as part of a more circular economy.

In January 2018 China stopped buying recycled plastic scrap that was not 99.5% pure. This seemingly abrupt turnaround shone a strong spotlight on the world’s broken model of plastic waste management: now we are seeing a cascade of events that confirm our worst fears, without transformational new methods for managing our plastic waste we are rapidly heading towards a global plastic disaster.

Yet it does not have to be this way.

Malaysia’s environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin is rightly up in arms, plastic that can't be recycled is ending up being burned illegally, dumped in landfills or waterways, creating risks to the environment and public health.

The Philippines has just shipped back tonnes of rubbish to Canada that it said was falsely labeled as plastic recycling in 2013 and 2014.

Worries about receiving such waste is now propelling countries to act; Vietnam is no longer issuing new licenses and will bar all imports of plastic scrap by 2025; in October, Taiwan said it will only import single-source plastic waste; and in March India expanded its ban on solid plastic waste imports.

Paradox and absurdity

Paradoxically recyclers are struggling to source sufficient upstream post-consumer recycled (PCR) content to meet an increased demand for recycled plastic. This seems absurd when we are drowning in a sea of plastic waste. Without high-quality waste we can’t produce recycled plastic products, yet it is now not only technologically possible, but economically viable to produce plastic products from 100% recycled material.

In fact, there is no reason why plastic shouldn’t be seen the source of its own raw material.

In general, the PET industry has made tremendous progress and we now have the technology to produce lightweight PET bottles made from 100% food-grade post-consumer recycle (PCR) content PET.

Ultimately, plastic is too deeply entrenched in our lives to simply suggest we ban it. We need to address the situation in a more visionary way that centers around managing the pressing waste situation by properly reusing plastic, and this should mean everything from creating 100% recycled products to a greater focus on refillable bottles, which may yet be another way to help reduce packaging waste. Advances in technology enable us to turn high percentages of PCR plastic into top-quality plastic bottles that satisfy the strict hygiene requirements for refillable PET (RefPET).

To date there are very few international studies that compare recyclable PET (rPET) and RefPET bottles, yet Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Schweppes and other major brands have gone down the refillable route in Germany where consumers have had a choice for some time now between 30% to 50% PCR one-way bottles and RefPET.

The RefPET refillable bottles for carbonated beverages and water products can be made with as much as 30% recycled content and can be reused up to 20 times. Bottles removed from the pool (approximately 2% every cycle) are collected and converted to PCR flakes and pellets to produce bottles, making it a true zero-waste plastic pack format.

PCR has a significantly lower carbon footprint than virgin PET materials and, contrary to popular belief, PET bottles made from up to 50% PCR are as clear as a bottle made from virgin material and equally as strong.

Clear use case

We demonstrated this recently when we teamed with leading Northern European beverage producer, Royal Unibrew, to develop a best-in-class, high performance, lightweight 500mL bottle with 50% food grade post-consumer recycled PET for a major carbonated soft drinks brand.  We have even developed a 100% PCR solution for still-water brands.

As one of the largest users of PCR flake in single-use containers, we have every reason to push for higher recycling rates as we can efficiently turn plastic waste back into sustainable packaging with a very high level of technical performance.

Life-cycle analysis of R-PET and RefPET bottles have found marginal differences, but either way what is missing is a cohesive effort to recycle all the plastic waste we have at our disposal.

As numerous brands step up to the vision of eliminating all their packaging from either going to landfill or waste, either solution relies on improved recycling processes. This means the consumer too plays a vital role in achieving this.

Increasing localized approaches are having a positive knock on effect too. As Abishek Balasubramanian at GA Circular, a Singapore-based sustainability consultancy, told the Financial Times in a feature published May 28, 2019, “we need to be focusing on local ecosystems, with collection and recycling within the same country. This model is typically more resilient than those that depend on international trade.”

In the case of Royal Unibrew, the Cleanpet flakes we use to produce their latest top-performing bottle are sourced from recycled PET bottles collected locally.

Taking a holistic approach to the issue means that Royal Unibrew’s plant in Faxe Denmark has improved processability, increased the production line output, and reduced the amount of energy and compressed air used in the manufacturing process. Light-weighting has further reduced carbon dioxide emissions with 135 tonnes CO2eq, a 7.44% reduction by saving a significant 67.2 tonnes of material per annum, further enhancing the product’s carbon footprint.

Obviously, there is no one clear-cut solution, it is about adapting tailored solutions to regional requirements as we look to reduce carbon footprints and resolve to re-use as well as reduce the waste we are producing.

The United States need only look to other countries, such as Germany and The Nordics, who have made a real success of their plastic waste collection, to see that by embracing an impactful waste management scheme they are way ahead of the US in terms of doing their part to transform waste into a valuable, reusable resource.

Ultimately sustainability is everyone’s responsibility and shipping plastic waste offshore is not going to solve anything. We should not be blind to plastic’s potential to address the situation, it is not plastic that is the problem so much as how we manage it.

About the author

Hugh Ross is CEO of Petainer, a private-equity-backed supplier of innovative plastic packaging solutions to the beverages market worldwide. Ross has been an entrepreneurial leader with a track record for global strategic growth generation affecting the packaging, plastic components, Fast-moving Consumer Goods Market (FMCG) and industrial sectors.

Top image courtesy RecycleMan/Adobe Stock

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