Rethinking Materials Conference Key Takeaways on the Role of Recycling Plastics in Circular Systems

May 16, 2022 | Insights,

Panel Chaired by Claudia Amos, Technical Director at Anthesis Group.

In this decisive decade, we acknowledge the need to avoid plastics where possible and reuse and repair products and packaging where it makes sense, yet we still see huge amounts of resources entering the waste management system each year. As Claudia Amos, Technical Director at Anthesis group puts it “to utilise these resources in an efficient and circular system, we need to convert plastics and organics via recycling processes and infrastructure into secondary commodities and products to enable them to re-enter supply chains”. This panel, as part of the Rethinking Materials conference, brings together views from across the plastics value chain. Here are some of the key takeaways on the role of recycling in advancing circular systems for plastics and packaging.

Rethinking materials for plastics recycling in our decisive decade

All panellists agree that rethinking materials doesn’t necessarily refer to generating or creating something new. As Inari Seppä, Director of Technology and Innovation at Eastman says, “we need to consider how we reuse or refresh what is out there already”. New plastic recycling technologies are positive advancements and will inevitably evolve, but rather than waiting for the so-called “silver bullet”, as Gerald Rebitzer, Sustainability Director at Amcor, puts it, “we need something now, we don’t have time for new technologies to scale to meet recyclability targets set for 2025”. Alessandra Funcia, Executive Management Member at Sukano, also addressed issues of quality, in particular, creating secondary resources and inputs for the food and drinks, medical and pharmaceutical sectors. If we recycle, we need to aim for high quality to make it worthwhile.

Hard-to-recycle plastics, sorting and separation

Most panellists agreed that categorising plastics as hard-to-recycle is backward thinking, as many of these materials are technically recyclable already but are lacking functional and targeted supply chains that can collect and prepare the material for recycling. Bruno Langlois, Business Development and Partnership Director at Carbios, contributed, “we have hard-to-recycle materials on the market because these materials serve a functional purpose”. What is required is a solution to simplify the process and work is needed to improve the sorting and collection processes already in place. Gerald Rebitzer referred to the importance of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems to collect materials, sort them and make them available for recycling, as the lack of material supply is a significant challenge for plastics recycling.

While for now plastics recycling mainly relies on mechanical plastic recycling plants, there are many technologies capable of processing a wide range of plastic waste through both mechanical and chemical recycling technologies. Today, Eastman and Synova Tech provide conversion processes, Carbios and Eastman are operating depolymerisation processes, and providers like CreaCycle, Cadel Deinking, and APK are applying purification technologies. This suggests that the processes that exist can work for all plastics, the ‘hard’ part is how we divert the waste, sort it, and collect it effectively to ensure a steady supply of materials for recycling facilities.

“In Europe, around six million tonnes of good quality recyclates production is missing to meet the 2025 Ellen MacArthur Foundation pledges made by major brands to include recycled plastics in their packaging. It is not possible to build up this much recycling capacity for post-consumer plastics in the next three years. Therefore, we should either aim for 2030 instead or acknowledge recyclates being produced from post-industrial waste or other renewable hydrocarbon sources in the interim.” 

Claudia Amos, Technical Director at Anthesis

Meeting recyclate demand

The panel had varying views with regards to the potential of chemical recycling within the next five years to meet evolving recyclate demand. Gerald Rebitzer stated the importance of designing packaging for both mechanical and chemical recycling. He emphasised the need for chemical recycling to be complementary to mechanical recycling, as mechanical recycling capacity will need to progress to meet growing levels of polymer production. He also shared that claiming chemical recycling can process all types of plastic blocks progress and encourages people to wait for a better solution to mechanical recycling, which isn’t realistic in the current timeframe. Alessandra Funcia also stated that current recyclates from mechanical recycling could be upgraded to increase quality and reduce degradation.

Jayanthi Rangarajan, an independent waste-to-value expert and former Chief Product Officer at Synova Tech, had the most optimistic view on chemical recycling, disagreeing with Gerald, and referring to the various chemical recycling technologies that have been around for over a decade. In support, Inari Seppä spoke about Eastman’s proven chemical recycling technologies that have been around for decades, highlighting the rapid increase in incentives to scale these technologies.

The chemical supply chain is very complex, involving many inputs, a number of different processes, mass flows, and locations to produce polymers.

Mass balancing: validating recycled content through advanced recycling

Inari Seppä shed some light on mass balancing approaches required to certify recycled content from chemical recycling. She said, “If you introduce chemical recycling plants into complex mechanical recycling infrastructure, you need to have an accounting method to make sure you can account for what’s going in (waste) and the initial and intermediate outputs of the process to keep track of recycled content.”

The chemical supply chain is very complex, involving many inputs, a number of different processes, mass flows, and locations to produce polymers. This mass balancing approach creates transparency around how many credits to attribute to a product and creates a clear chain of custody for the recyclates being produced. Mass balancing is an approved and valid approach to ensure there is never more recycled content attributed to products than material available from the recycling process. However, there are many different approaches and currently, there is not one agreed international standard, however, the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC+) is probably the most prevalent method.

Meeting recyclate demands and net zero carbon going forward

Inari Seppä highlights the importance of legislation in meeting recyclate and Net Zero demands. She says, “evolving policies must incentivise change… rather than focussing on small parts of the system, policies need to address the wider direction”. In terms of financing the acceleration, Gerald Rebitzer draws on the urgent need for funding for waste collection and sorting to ensure a consistent and quality supply of materials. The future seems optimistic, as emphasised by Alessandra Funcia, “board members and investors are encouraging organisations to revisit business models and products”. To decouple plastic from raw materials, collaboration is required across the plastics value chain to incentivise plastic recycling and drive the circular economy. We are now more aware than ever of the immense untapped value in waste. As Jayanthi Rangarajan says, “waste is the new oil”, “if we focus on how we get the money out of waste, we’ll get innovation”.

We look forward to seeing further developments in the plastic recycling space by the next Rethinking Materials conference in London on 9-10th May 2023.

Speakers:

  • Alessandra Funcia, Executive Management Member at Sukano
  • Gerald Rebitzer, Director of Sustainability, Flexibles at Amcor
  • Jayanthi Rangarajan, independent waste-to-value expert and former Chief Product Officer at Synova Tech
  • Bruno Langlois, Business Development and Partnership Director at Carbios
  • Inari Seppä, Director of Technology and Innovation at Eastman
  • Claudia Amos, Technical Director at Anthesis Group served as moderator

 

Related Insights

Contact us

We'd love to hear from you

Anthesis has offices in the U.S., Canada, UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Andorra, Finland, Colombia, Brazil, China, the Philippines and the Middle East.