Chiarotti said that Hodges feels the brand owners, which have committed to the 2025 deadline, need reassurance from the plastics industry. “We need to reach out to brand owners and say we have got the technology sorted out, the business model sorted out and the finances sorted out, so trust us, we will now deliver so you can deliver what you need to do,” Hodges said.
ICIS’ Senior Analyst of Plastics Recycling Helen McGeough explained: “Plastic packaging is more complex than ever before, modern packaging has moved beyond just functionality to a marketing tool. We need to strip it back to a simpler level and encourage recycling concepts at the design stage.
“The EU has set the bar high with the Single-Use Plastics Directive, requiring higher collection rates, even with 2018 recovery rates for PET bottles in Europe at 63%, and 55% in the UK. PET collection rates vary across member states, reflecting the differences in systems, consumer participation and government ability to prioritize investment in waste management," said McGeough. "This lack of standardization in everything from waste infrastructure to final rPET product specification continues to present as many challenges as opportunities for one of the most developed recycling markets in the plastic industry,” she added.
Victory stated that the “sector needs heavy investment to catch up across the entire chain. There’s no point in everyone wanting to recycle if the infrastructure isn’t there. We are relying on people to understand and embrace recycling systems, which is hard to predict. There’s a strong education element to it. For most people, plastic is simply plastic—they are unaware of the different types and what to do with them.”
Chiarotti notes that Hodges concurred on the need for investment, and emphatically suggested the industry needs to provide funding. “The amount the industry is committing to this sea change is next to nothing—25 million here, 10 million there—come on guys, you know, we're talking about a hundred billion [euro] industry here. You can't start with pocket money!”
Hodges sees the biggest industry challenge, and perhaps opportunity, as the shift from massive mechanical recycling plants to smaller, local chemical recycling units. “The new industry business model is small scale and local, whereas for the last 30 to 40 years, all we’ve talked about is massive and global. This is a complete game changer,” Chiarotti reports.
I would add that while small and local sounds good, recycling facilities need large-scale operations to be profitable. Many of the PET facilities in the United States are operating at 60% capacity, according to some reports. Simplification of the whole recycling scheme is needed if we are to obtain that scale and to efficiently capture the value of recycling old products into new ones.
It’s evident that the European plastics industry struggles with the same issues we do in the United States. Curing "plastiphobia" requires more than just a paradigm shift within the plastics industry. It will take extensive consumer education about plastics—what can and can’t be recycled and why—as well as simplification of the recycling process to encourage greater participation.