International plastics recycling groups draft global definition of recyclability

plastics recyclingJust what does “plastics recyclability” mean, anyway? The industry has long wrestled with the confusion surrounding materials that can—and cannot—be recycled and other questions that throw consumers into a conundrum. That uncertainty contributes to the low rates of some plastics recycling.

In an effort to provide a consistent metric to guide the efforts of sustainability for plastics in the circular economy, two of the leading global international recycling organizations have developed a universal definition of recyclable as it relates to plastic packaging and products.

In the joint announcement, Ton Emans, President of Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE; Brussels), and Steve Alexander, President and CEO of the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR; Washington, DC), pointed to the onslaught of recent announcements around commitments to package sustainability and recyclability.

“The term recyclable is consistently used with packages and products without a defined reference point,” commented Alexander. “At the end of the day, recyclability goes beyond [a material] being technically recyclable. There must be consumer access to a recycling program, a recycler must be able to process the material and there must be an end market,” said Alexander.

Emans added, “Recently, we have seen many announcements regarding legislative measures on plastic products and pledges of industry actors committing to making their products recyclable. As recyclers, we are a fundamental part of the solution to the issue of sustainability of plastics, and we need appropriate audiences to understand what is necessary to label a product or package recyclable. We welcome these commitments and encourage others to follow. Nevertheless, clear and universally endorsed definitions and objectives are needed.”

For a product to be considered recyclable, plastics must meet these four conditions, according to this definition:

  • The product must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program;
  • the product must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes;
  • the product can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes; and
  • the recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products.

Innovative materials must demonstrate that they can be collected and sorted in sufficient quantities, must be compatible with existing industrial recycling processes or will have to be available in sufficient quantities to justify operating new recycling processes.

Although the definition is to be applied on a global scale, both groups understand the complexity of a global system of plastics recycling, and welcome comments from the plastics recycling industry and relevant stakeholders. Thus far, this definition has been supported by PETCORE Europe.

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