Breaking the recycling deadlock
Currently, less than 10% of plastics are recycled worldwide. And there is no easy way to raise that rate.
By Bertrand Beauté
Solution or illusion? Plastic recycling is a controversial issue. Its supporters, the plastics and packaging industries, are pitted against its detractors, for the most part environmental NGOs. A Greenpeace USA report published in October 2022 bluntly stated that plastic recycling is a "dead end street", a "myth" promoted by the industry to protect its business.
At the other end of the spectrum, the trade association Plastics Europe, for example, believes that "plastic is a key material" and will endeavour to "harness the power of innovation and technology to significantly increase reuse and recycling by, for example, creating more recyclable products and more innovative recycling techniques".
"Recycling is part of the answer, but it’s not a miracle solution"
Kokou Agbo-Bloua, Global Head of Macro Research at Société Générale
So what’s really happening? Can recycling be developed to solve the problem of plastic waste? "Recycling is part of the answer, but it’s not a miracle solution," says Kokou Agbo-Bloua, Global Head of Macro Research at Société Générale. That said, recycling has been developing rapidly in recent years. "The share of recycled plastic in global consumption has risen from 2% in 2016 to 10% today. In this market, that’s rapid growth considering the volumes to be processed," says Clément Maclou, a portfolio manager at ODDO BHF.
This percentage is expected to continue climbing over the next few years due to both growing consumer demand for sustainable products and the adoption of legislation to promote recycling. For example, on 1 January 2021, the European Union passed a "plastic tax". As currently applied, the richest EU Member States must now pay a contribution of €0.80 per kilogram of non-recycled plastic packaging waste (yoghurt pots, water bottles, etc.). The legislation targets a 55% recycling rate for plastic packaging in the EU by 2030.
The biggest plastic users are also pushing demand upward. "All companies, such as Coca-Cola and Evian, want to buy recycled plastic to improve their image in the eyes of consumers," Clément Maclou says. "As a result of consumer awareness, new regulatory incentives and motivation from companies that use plastic to change their image, the whole recycling chain is getting organised." However, many hurdles stand in the way of developing recycling. Below are the five main challenges.
The production of new plastic is growing faster than treatment options. "Today, recycling capacity is still too limited to accommodate the volumes to be managed," says Paul de Froment, Equity Research Vice President, Cleantech & Energy transition, at Bryan, Garnier & Co. As a result, increasingly large amounts of plastic end up being incinerated, sent to landfills or dumped. These rates have shot up since China – which long acted as recycler of the world’s plastic – closed its doors to foreign plastic waste in 2018. Greenpeace USA estimates that recycling rates in the United States fell to around 5% to 6% in 2021 from 9.5% in 2014 and 8.7% in 2018, when "the U.S. exported millions of tonnes of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled".
Instead of developing adequate capacity on their land, Western countries have sought out new dumping grounds, namely Vietnam, Malaysia, Kenya and Turkey, which recovers large volumes of plastic waste from Europe. This phenomenon exasperates NGOs. "For far too long developed countries like the US and Canada have been exporting their mixed toxic plastic wastes to developing Asian countries claiming it would be recycled in the receiving country. Instead, much of this contaminated mixed waste cannot be recycled and is instead dumped or burned, or finds its way into the ocean," Sara Brosché, scientific advisor to the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), lamented in 2020.
To change the situation, the European Union has toughened its regulations. As of 1 January 2021, the EU has banned Member States from exporting unsorted or hazardous plastic waste to non-OECD countries. This should boost both recycling capacity on the Old Continent and business for waste collection and recycling giants like Suez and Veolia.
"Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades," says Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA senior plastics campaigner, in the NGO’s report. "But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable."
Why not? The reason is either technological or economic. For some plastics, there is simply no way to recycle them. For others, the process is so expensive (see also section 5) that recycling cannot be implemented on an industrial scale. On its website, Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) states, "There is no recycling process covering all these different collected plastics, nor is recycling always worthwhile for technical or economic reasons. And/or there may not be a worthwhile market."
In practice, only a few plastics, such as PET, high- and low-density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE) and PVC, are actually recycled. Of the 780,000 tonnes of plastic waste produced each year in Switzerland, more than 80% (around 650,000 tonnes) is incinerated with household waste and 6% in cement factories. In the end, only 80,000 tonnes (10%) are recycled. And even then, not completely. "Unlike glass, which is an infinitely recyclable material, plastic can only be mechanically recycled six or seven times," says Pieter Busscher of Robeco. "Any more than that, and its properties are altered."
Different types of plastic cannot be treated together. That is why, for example, Switzerland has separate collection channels for PET bottles and for polyethylene containers (milk or shampoo bottles). "To increase recycling rates, collection systems have to be improved," says Tzoulianna Leventi, an analyst at Abrdn. The problem is that the amount of different plastic waste is so high that it is extremely difficult to collect them all separately. As Greenpeace sums up, it is impossible to sort thousands of billions of products. Adding to the problem is that many objects use more than one type of plastic, making it impossible to recycle them in practice. "Products containing several layers of plastic are really the worst," confirms Pieter Busscher of Robeco.
And the development of bio-plastics makes the problem even more complex. A case in point is polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF). Its promoters claim that this highly promising plant-based polymer could gradually offer an advantageous replacement for the PET (derived from fossil fuels) in our plastic bottles. However, recycling PEF could disrupt PET recycling, as the two materials cannot be treated together. Will that mean developing two separate collection channels? How will consumers be able to tell the difference between PEF and PET bottles, which are indistinguishable at first glance?
Manufacturers add chemical additives to improve the properties of plastics, such as antioxidants, antistatic agents, flame retardants, plasticisers and pigments. In 2019, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) listed the 400 most commonly used additives in the plastics industry. But there are many others. And the problem is that these additives are not eliminated in the treatment process. Recycled plastics therefore contain a cocktail of chemicals with unknown properties. "These chemical compounds are suspected of causing health problems," says Kokou Agbo-Bloua of Société Générale. "That’s why recycled plastics cannot be used in food packaging, except for PET bottles."
To solve the problem, manufacturers are trying to improve recycling techniques. Mechanical processes are for now the most widely used, i.e., sorting waste by type of plastic, colour and quality. It is then washed, shredded, melted into flakes and transformed into resin. The resin can be used as a component in making other items. This relatively straightforward method has two main problems. First, the quality of the properties of polymers gradually deteriorates with each recycling cycle, and second, the process does not eliminate chemical additives. The other main technique is chemical recycling. Different technologies are used (high heat, chemical reaction) to transform plastic waste into virgin-grade materials. The Quebec-based firm Loop Industries and Eastman from the US are on the leading edge in chemical plastic recycling.
"In theory, chemical recycling, which currently represents barely 1% of the market, produces cleaner plastics than mechanical processes," Paul de Froment says. "But in practice, the technology is not yet mature. It is very expensive, more difficult to set up and more energy intensive, and it uses solvents that can pollute the environment." In 2022, the US NGO Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analysed eight chemical recycling plants. It found that the majority of "chemical recycling" facilities are not recycling any plastic and that they release hazardous air pollutants, states the report’s lead author, Veena Singla.
According to Paul de Froment, the solution could come from a third way: "One of the major innovations emerging in the plastics sector is enzymatic recycling," the Bryan, Garnier & Co. analyst says. "This technology would allow plastics to be recycled infinitely by using enzymes to break down polymers into monomers and then use these monomers to produce virgin-grade plastic. This is the most promising technology for the future of recycling." Spearheading the field is the French company Carbios, which has signed partnerships with big names such as L’Oréal, Patagonia and Tommy Hilfiger.
The issue of PET recycling hides the bigger picture. "The market for recycled PET is saturated because all major companies want to incorporate the material to enhance their image," says Clément Maclou of ODDO BHF.
But demand for other recycled plastics is restrained by the often prohibitive cost. "Recycled plastics remain more expensive than virgin plastics," says Kokou Agbo-Bloua, Global Head of Macro Research at Société Générale. "Companies that use them therefore find themselves at a competitive disadvantage." This is a complicated economic challenge to solve, said Vincent Warnery, CEO of the German group Beiersdorf, owner of the cosmetics brand Nivea, in an interview with the newspaper Les Echos on 30 March: "Everyone wants sustainable products but no one wants to pay more. We have to be careful because the organic crisis proves that consumers are watching their purchasing power. (…). Recycled plastic, for example, is more expensive. For our Nivea shower gels, we have switched to recycled plastic but we have had to reduce our consumption by 25% by using thinner packaging."