How do we solve a problem like plastic?
The plastic problem
As new plastic taxes and laws draw closer, there is a scramble to find out how companies will be held accountable for not making new products from at least 30% recycled plastic, or whether plastic branded as ‘recycled’ is actually that at all.
For some time, it has been a common understanding across many nations that plastic recycling, or preferably a reduction in plastic consumption, is a necessity. To hit, and hopefully surpass, plastic recycling targets there needs to be a monumental shift in the ways that plastics are collected, sorted, broken-down, remoulded and remanufactured into new plastic products and the way that these activities are traced and validated.
Issues such as fraud, use of child and forced labour are just some of the issues that rear their ugly heads in the plastic recycling industry. Such issues cannot, and will not, be accepted in order for us to collectively meet the environmental goals that are going to become common across many countries, developed or developing in the near future.
Attitudes, whilst of course instrumental for drumming up change, are also not enough to catapult us towards hitting plastic recycling targets. In unison with legislation, large consumer goods companies need to be investing in plastic waste companies in order to ensure that their plastic products are coming from the right recycled sources.
There is no shortage of enthusiasm within communities to recycle plastic and have less of an impact on the environment around them. Yet what many find frustrating is identifying what can and cannot be recycled and how much that differs between local councils.
In the UK Local councils primarily use mechanical recycling up and down the country to sort and process recycling picked up in weekly and biweekly refuse collections. Mechanical recycling shreds and grinds the recycled plastic, before it is transformed into pellets and re-moulded. However, this technique is not possible with all plastic products. Predominantly ridged plastic is favoured, leaving single use plastics heading for the black bin. Chemical recycling is an alternative to mechanical recycling; it is still in its infancy but boasts impressive recycling capability.
Chemical recycling breaks down plastic to a molecular level. The plant can ingest and breakdown not only ridged plastics but single use and medical plastic which is often discarded. Chemical recycling, unlike mechanical, can preserve the integrity of the newly formed plastic, meaning a high-quality product and a longer life span. Why chemical recycling looks favourable in today’s society is partly down to a world living with COVID-19. Already we are seeing a huge swathe of virus-related plastic waste, whether that is gloves, single use face masks or the mass of rubbish that accumulates in our public spaces after socially distanced gatherings. After the virus dissipates, whenever that will be, we will continue to see an increased use in single-use plastic wrapped around food, plastic dividers in shops and disposable face masks used by the public. The increase in single use plastic is not hard to understand, but it’s important to ask, at a time when people are concerned about their and their loved ones’ safety, how can our efforts be continued and most importantly increased in plastic recycling?
Traceability is the key
What makes gearing change from a financial point of view difficult, is that plastic is a low value product – there is no major transformation in price per tonne along the value chain. However, with the new plastic tax, which is £200 per tonne of every tonne of non-recyclable plastic, could plastic become a product of value in order to avoid high taxes on a low value product? With taxes looming, there is a need for companies to prove where their plastics are coming from. This can be achieved by fully understanding your entire supply chain, identifying the key risk points and addressing them accordingly. Therefore, it is becoming a necessity for consumer goods companies to fully adopt and embed the principles of traceability in the entirety of their recycling supply chains to prove beyond doubt the recycled origin of the plastic.