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plastic bottle apocalypse

Pressure to reduce consumption of single-use plastic packaging will continue into 2019

In this year-end long read, Clare Goldsberry offers an in-depth review of the sustainability issues that will continue to plague the plastics industry and suggests some remedies.

It’s not hard to pinpoint the trends and issues that will impact the plastics industry in 2019—in many cases, they will be the same challenges that the industry has faced for the past two decades. While plastics usage in durable goods isn’t so much a focus of those wanting to rid the world of plastic waste, packaging and water bottles will be under increased pressure thanks to a harsher light being thrown on plastics in the marine environment.

There’s also more noise about how recycling isn’t working, evidenced by low recycling rates and a lack of infrastructure, particularly in developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region, where most of the plastic waste is entering the Pacific Ocean.

According to figures from various sources, 40% of all plastic ends up as packaging for thousands of consumer goods, which is typically used once and discarded. The many benefits of plastic makes it ideal for safety, freshness, a longer shelf-life, lightweighting for transportation and fuel savings, and even creating better health for populations around the world.

Last spring, the Washington-based American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) Plastics Division announced three goals it says “crystallize U.S. plastics producers’ commitment to recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the United States by 2040.” These goals for capturing, recycling and recovering plastics before they enter the environment are:

  • 100% of plastic packaging to be re-used, recycled or recovered by 2040;
  • 100% of plastic packaging used should be recyclable or recoverable by 2030; and
  • 100% of the U.S. manufacturing sites operated by ACC’s Plastics Division members will participate in Operation Clean Sweep-Blue (designed to minimize pellet, flake and powder loss) by 2020, with all of those manufacturing sites in North America involved by 2022.

While all of that sounds promising for creating the circular economy that  everyone wants as a solution to plastic waste, how do we get these discarded, single-use items—particularly water bottles—into a value stream that captures the benefits and value of plastic waste and creates greater usefulness?

Bottled water is big business

While bottled water is in for consumers, plastic water bottles are out, according to numerous news reports that say consumers are becoming more concerned about the plethora of water bottles floating around in the ocean. Bottled water companies, which are enjoying a boom as consumers turn away from sugary drinks and avoid drinking tap water, are trying to come up with a better bottle. But that doesn’t look promising, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Bottled Water Confronts Its Plastic,” by Saabira Chaudhuri (Dec. 13, 2018).

U.S. bottled water consumption rose by 284% between 1994 and 2017. Most of that growth was driven by single-serve bottles, which make up 67% of U.S. sales, but recycling rates of those bottles are down, said the WSJ article. Some people are turning to reusable bottles—either metal or glass—but they have their downsides, as well.

A recent study published by Fact.MR, "Reusable Water Bottles Market," projected that this market will see a 3.1% year-on-year increase over 2017, exceeding US $8.3 billion by the end of this year. “The study remains bullish on the continual rise in demand for reusable water bottles, as growing environmental concerns are driving consumers as well as end-use industrial sectors to switch to eco-friendly alternatives for single-use water bottles,” said Fact.MR. 

With recycling rates for PET water bottles at around one-third of all bottles made, that leaves a lot of PET out there needing to be recycled into something—carpets and other textiles, but rarely back into food-grade PET for more water bottles. In fact, a joint report from the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the American Chemistry Council shows that plastic bottle recycling declined slightly in 2017, slipping 3.6% to 2.8 billion pounds. The overall recycling rate for plastic bottles for the year was 29.3%, down from 29.7% in 2016.

Factors contributing to industry challenges included changing export markets and a 3.6% drop in material collected for recycling. Ongoing increases in single-stream collection also led to increased contamination of recyclables in the near term, said the report. In addition, growth in the use of plastic bottles was offset by continuing progress in lightweighting and increased use of concentrates with smaller, lighter bottles.

In 2017, PET bottles collected for recycling decreased by 27 million pounds. The collection of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles, which includes bottles for milk, household cleaners and detergents, fell by 70.3 million pounds (6.3%) to just over one billion pounds for the year. The recycling rate for HDPE bottles slipped from 33.4% to 31.1%.

“Plastic bottle recycling is proving to be resilient in the face of short-term challenges,” said Steve Alexander, president of APR. “The recycling industry is responding in kind, with some investing in increased U.S. infrastructure, a clear sign of a positive long-term outlook. These investments underscore the need for continued consumer participation and convenient access to recycling programs.”

The low rates of recycling could put a damper on the use of recycled materials that are needed to help bottle makers reduce the amount of virgin resin and contribute to consumers’ desire for “green” bottles made with recycled material.

Europe does a bit better than the United States when it comes to collecting and recycling PET. A 2017 survey of the European PET recycling industry, released on Dec. 19, 2018, shows that 58.2% of PET bottles were collected out of 3,308,300 tons of PET bottles placed on the European market in 2018. “PET collection and recycling rates are exceptional in the plastics packaging industry, which shows the important role of the material in the circular economy,” summarized Christian Crépet, Executive Director of Petcore Europe.

Recycling fail

The WSJ article noted that while many bottlers of water are using a percentage of recycled PET in their bottles, consumers want 100% recycled bottles. That isn’t possible for several reasons, including the fact that plastic loses its structural integrity and clarity after being recycled numerous times. That is why virgin resin is combined with a percentage of recycled material to add eco-friendliness while maintaining structural properties.

Growing concern over waste plastic and a heightened ongoing war against plastic is resulting in many consumers shifting away from single-use water bottles toward reusable ones, primarily metal and plastic, since glass is too fragile. Additionally, as Fact.MR pointed out, “Metal and glass are costlier than plastic, which is why a majority of manufacturers in the reusable water bottles market are choosing plastic as a primary raw material,” said the report. “This also enables reusable water bottle manufacturers to reduce the production cost and maintain competitive prices.”

Talk of collecting more PET water bottles to increase recycling rates by implementing deposit schemes arises from time to time. Paying consumers to return their plastic water bottles to the store might work as an incentive to consumers. It worked with glass soda bottles back in the 1950s and 1960s. It works today with glass milk bottles from local dairies; however, you pay a $2 deposit when you buy the milk, which is refunded when you return the bottle. Two dollars is a large enough amount to serve as an incentive. Five cents was a nice amount in the 1950s, and finding a glass soda bottle or two in the ditches along roadways meant trading a bottle for a Snickers bar . . . or another bottle of soda! What is the deposit value of a PET water bottle? Would it be enough to encourage people to take their water bottles back to the store?

Stories about recycling in the news media all seem to point to one thing: Recycling isn’t working as planned, so we have to get rid of plastics. Plastic pollution is targeted as the biggest environmental problem we face. We’re constantly being told of its “devastating” effects, as in a half-hour 60 Minutes piece on Dec. 16. The segment showed video after video of “rivers” of plastic waste in the Philippines and on the beaches of Midway Island, which is hundreds of miles from any heavily inhabited country. The solution offered in this segment? Get rid of single-use plastics.  

Reducing the amount of virgin resin in manufacturing bottles is seen as one answer to the perceived lack of recycling’s success. Don’t make as much single-use plastic stuff like water bottles that end up as waste in the environment, they say. According to PatSnap’s latest report, “Sustainable Packaging Innovation and R&D Trends: the scramble to scrap single-use plastic,” regulation is forcing companies to reduce their usage of virgin plastics. PatSnap is a firm specializing in patent search, innovation intelligence and intellectual property analytics. “Regulation from China saw the ban on importing waste plastics begin in December 2017,” the report noted. “In January 2018, the European Union (EU) announced it aims to make all plastic packaging in the EU recyclable by 2030.”

While it might be possible to make all plastic packaging recyclable in the EU and, indeed, worldwide, that does not mean that all plastic packaging will be recycled. That’s because you still have the human element involved. Even if all plastic packaging is recyclable, humans must take the responsibility to get the recyclable plastic packaging into the proper waste stream to ensure that it is recycled. And that’s the real problem!

PatSnap’s report said that its analysis of current intellectual property filings of modern innovators in sustainable packaging and PET recovery found that these areas “are crying out for innovation. Companies filing in this space could go on to control the growing market for recyclable and re-usable plastics used in packaging.”

Providing examples, PatSnap noted that “Mondelez International announced that it will make all of its packaging recyclable by 2025, as the company aims to reduce waste levels and create a circular economy for packaging.” PepsiCo signed a multi-year supply agreement with Loop Industries to incorporate Loop’s plastic into its product packaging by early 2020. Nestlé announced its “ambition” to make all packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

“While PET recovery has seen an uptick in patent filings in 2016, it is clear there is no real trend in search queries, which may indicate an industry that is innovating at pace,” said PatSnap. “This is perhaps not so surprising when considering that this is an issue which companies are facing due to regulatory change.”

The most number of patents filed for the recovery or working-up of waste plastic materials were filed in 2017 and 2018. “For the area of recovery or working-up of waste materials there have been only a small number of filings over the past 10 years, and many of these areas have seen no patenting activity. The top companies patenting innovations in this area include Toray Industries, Eastman, Teijin, DuPont and Arkema. “Loop Industries Inc., appears to be the most prolific new entrant in this PET recovery and up-working area,” said PatSnap. Loop Industries holds a patent that uses a chemical recycling process to break down waste PET and polyester into their monomer building blocks, resulting in resin that is the “same quality as virgin feedstock, and one that meets FDA requirements for use in food-grade packaging.”

While these are admirable goals, making all plastic recyclable in order to reduce the need for more virgin resin will not guarantee that all single-use items will be recycled. Will those goals to make all packaging recyclable result in higher recycling rates, from the current one-third to maybe 50%? And will the other 50% continue to end up in landfills, or worse, in the marine environment? I can almost guarantee that “recyclable” plastic packaging will continue to be found floating in the world’s marine environment.

The European PET Recycling Survey 2017 noted that other problems also interfere with the recyclability of PET, including the quality of the material. The survey outlines an increase in PET trays and opaque materials in clear and transparent PET bales. Even though the products are recyclable they have a negative effect on the quality of the reprocessed flakes. The share of PET trays in clear bales is different from country to country, ranging from 1% to 18%. The same goes for trays and opaque bottles in mixed color bales, where the share ranges from 1% to 25%. “It has to be mentioned that this opaque and difficult-to-recycle PET material should be collected in separate streams,” noted the executive summary of the Petcore Europe survey.

With an actual processed PET amount of 1,741,700 tons and an installed maximum capacity of 2,038,100 tons in 2017, there was an unused capacity of 296,400 tons caused by several reasons, one of them being the quality of the collected PET. Additionally, insufficient quantity of collection was observed—a lack of 115,000 tons in 2017. In its Dec. 12 newsletter, Petcore acknowledged that the success of “ambitious sustainability targets” will require not only the industry but the “support of national authorities, European legislators and consumers alike. More collection and better sorting are needed to increase recycling and incorporate recyclate into new products.” (Detailed survey results will be presented during the annual Petcore Europe Conference 2019 in Brussels on Feb. 6 and 7.)

It’s one thing to say that “more collection and better sorting” will provide a solution to ridding the environment of plastic waste and putting more recyclate into the resin stream (rPET in particular), but getting the PET bottles and other single-use packaging waste into the recycling stream remains the most difficult part of achieving these goals. Collection, sorting and cleaning the waste to make it fit for recycling is labor and energy intensive. At the end of the day, how much have we actually accomplished in terms of reducing the carbon footprint, the ultimate goal of this whole effort?

Sustainability as a market driver

A study by IHS Markit Chemical and Energy sector in that research company’s 2018 Issue 3 newsletter noted that sustainability is a “critical plastics market driver.” According to Nick Vafiadis, Vice President, Plastics, IHS Markit, “A clear shift is developing the approach toward sustainability, as the movement transitions from reactive to proactive mode.” Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was cited in the study as one of the proactive approaches to increase the circularity of plastics. EPR “levies fees on packaging . . . that are paid by manufacturers,” explained Vafiadis. “These fees are used to develop recycling infrastructure and encourage the recycling of content. EPR policies are currently either in effect or targeted for near-term implementation in Europe, North America, China and India. Presently there are no packaging EPR programs in effect in the U.S., although we expect to see programs adopted by 2025.”

The ACC noted that it intends “to further enhance plastic pellet stewardship by 2022,” which is also good. Resin producers and processors are doing a much better job of controlling resin pellets and keeping them out of the environment.

Levying fees on producers, as I see it, is only the beginning. We still need people to accept responsibility for getting their plastic bottles and other single-use packaging into the recycling stream. However, that must be easy and convenient, which might mean moving toward alternatives to sorting and cleaning the collected plastic waste which is not very energy efficient or “green.”

Recycling alternatives

According to IHS Markit, “only about 4% of the plastic packaging used globally is ultimately delivered to recycling plants, while a third is left in various ecosystems, and 40% ends up in landfill.”

The challenge, as noted above, involves humans and their handling of the single-use plastic bottles and other containers once the product has been consumed. There is also issue of the quality/cleanliness of the recyclate. Even U.S. cities that have good recycling infrastructure, including curbside pick-up, sorting and baling, send a large percentage of the materials that are recyclable to the landfill.  

If recycling systems are not a viable option for many cities or even developing countries, what about waste-to-energy (WTE) or plastic-to-fuel? The value of plastic does not  lie just in its ability to be recycled into other plastic products, but also in its inherent energy content. Many developing countries could use greater energy production and I can foresee the mountains of discarded plastic being an excellent source of energy. It also simplifies the process by allowing co-mingling of all types of plastics (the greatest value) along with other waste materials. That is something that consumers also want—simplification in the identification and sorting process—which WTE addresses.

Plastics that are considered “trash” (#3 to #7 bales) can also be taken to companies that provide plastic-to-fuel processing, according to Mike Dungan, Director of Sales and Marketing for RES Polyflow LLC. Its patented plastics-to-fuel process complements current recycling efforts by converting low-value, co-mingled plastic waste, such as film and flexible packaging, into marketable petroleum blend stocks like fuels and wax. Dungan noted that RES Polyflow is getting a “high degree of cooperation and interest” in its process, “since plastic-to-fuel creates a new market for the residual plastics generated by a typical material recycling facility (non 1s and 2s),” he told PlasticsToday. “They generally consider a #3 to #7 bale to be trash,” he commented. “We see it as a bar of gold, chock full of hydrocarbons that can be repurposed efficiently. We don’t combust or incinerate, and we accept a broad range of somewhat contaminated material, and we produce feedstocks for other processes.” (Read "Brightmark Energy announces major investment in nation’s first commercial-scale plastics-to-fuel plant" for more on this.)

Sustainability in 2019

Aggressive policies to regulate the use of single-use plastic packaging and bottles—even outright bans—are likely to be in the industry's future. IHS Markit’s Vafiadis notes that these moves will create “significant investment risk and market uncertainty. This is especially significant for plastics producers, processors and consumer packaging companies that must invest now for the future.”

Resolving the issue of plastic waste in the environment isn’t easy and there’s no silver bullet. Blaming the material and banning it from use only results in alternatives that do not provide high levels of food safety, shelf life and convenience, not to mention that plastics are more economical and eco-friendly to produce and maintain their high value after their useful life through recycling, waste-to-energy and plastics-to-fuel technologies. You can’t say that about many of the alternatives such as paper, coated paperboard or even bio-plastics that claim compostability or degradability.

Plastics will never disappear—these materials were intended to be durable and lightweight and they provide cost-effective benefits to consumers. A number of years ago I heard a presentation at an SPE meeting. The processor who was talking encouraged attendees to “define the customer’s needs and required performance for their packaging. Compare options. Some customers say they want “fluff” (good PR or even green-washing), so they can say they’re ‘green.’ Others want to see true sustainability,” said the speaker. “Focus on direct, quantifiable benefits, i.e. cost, properties and performance. Evaluate end-of-life considerations. There are too many assumptions about what happens at the end of life to make any broad claims. Not all solutions are viable.”

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