The Packaging Series: Plastics Recycling
As discussed in our recent blog about food packaging and pollution, recycling is more complex than it immediately seems. Although often touted as a positive solution, there are many factors that make recycling unviable, complex or underused. We will explore the main challenges, processes and solutions in this blog. Bear with us for some in-depth exploration.
Let’s start with a real-life example.
What Happens to My Plastic Bottle?
For most of us, our relationship with the products and packaging we consume end the moment we put them in the bin. Let’s be honest, we normally just forget about it. But it doesn’t just disappear.
If we use a general waste bin, that’s it. It won’t be recycled but will end up in landfill, along with the 79% of plastic that ends up there. But what if we place our bottle into a recycling bin?
Step 1: First, it is collected from the bin, or the recycling bags you leave on the street on bin night. It is then sent to a materials recovery facility (MRF). Once there, the recyclable waste is separated by type into paper, glass, aluminium and plastic.
Step 2: The plastic is then sorted by type. It might be categorised by polymer type, colour or its origin process. As different plastics are used for different products and are processed in different ways and some recycling facilities can only recycle one specific type of plastic, it’s essential that it is separated.
This is the point where the recycled waste is often bought and sold, frequently involving it travelling overseas to be processed further.
Step 3: The plastic is then cleaned. Paper labels and the glue that attaches them is also removed as if left in the mix, they can cause degradation of the quality of the recycled plastic. This is done to ensure that no contaminants enter the plastic waste stream.
Step 4: Once cleaned and sorted, the plastic is shredded into flakes, before being melted and processed into granulates. This increases the surface area of the plastic, which makes it easier to transport, re-purpose and re-shape. Sometimes, the plastic is melted down immediately so that it can be re-moulded into new shapes.
Step 5: The small plastic particles, or granulates, are then tested to determine their qualities and therefore which is the best way for them to be used in future. Testing is routinely done for density, air classification, melting point and colour.
Step 6: Finally, the plastic particles are made into the recycled materials in preparation for use. The small particles are melted together to form plastic pellets, which are then used in moulding of recycled plastic.
These pellets are used to form a wide range of recycled materials. Not only plastic bottles but carpet, fabric and clothing, furniture, bottles, pipes and buckets. However, it’s worth noting that plastic does degrade through the recycling process and can only go through it once or twice before becoming unusable. So, our plastic bottle will not be able to become another transparent plastic bottle. Rather, it is more likely that the plastic from the original bottle will be used to make another material such as polyester for clothing or will be mixed with virgin plastic to create a partially recycled bottle.
So What Are The Challenges?
The largest challenge that faces us when trying to increase the amount of plastic that is recycled is the fact that not all types of plastic are recyclable. We use a wide range of plastics for different purposes:
Just some of the types of Plastic
Polystyrene (PS) – Used in foam hot drink cups, plastic cutlery, yoghurt containers
Polypropylene (PP) – Harder plastic used in lunch boxes, take-away containers, ice cream containers
Low-Density Polyethylene (PDPE) – used in bin bags
Plasticised Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – Used in juice bottles, squeeze bottles for sauces, cordial or squash bottles
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – Used in shampoo bottles and milk bottles
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – Used in soft drinks and water bottles
Only PET, HDPE and PVC are ordinarily recycled under usual roadside collections. PS, PP and LDPE tend to get stuck in the machinery used for recycling, so are often not recycled. You can find out more about how to recycle different plastics using this great resource by Recycle Now.
Composite plastics, which are made up of a mixture of plastics, are the most problematic. Items such as toothpaste tubes, takeaway coffee and coffee capsules contain a mix of materials that are a nightmare for the recycling chain. It is very hard to separate these materials and often they overwhelm the capabilities of recycling plants.
And finally, as mentioned above, plastic loses quality each time it is recycled. This means that there will always be a need for virgin plastic if we continue to use plastic for the same purposes that we currently do.
Plastic in Transit
Aside from the fact that not all plastics are able to be recycled it’s also worth noting that the process described above does not necessarily take place at one processing facility in order to access the most efficient processing facilities and capacity.
However, there are also downsides to this trade in waste, including the requirement for transportation adding to the carbon footprint of the process. And until China closed its doors to our Western waste, our plastic was routinely being shipped there. This reliance on exporting plastic waste has meant that infrastructure in the UK and other exporting countries is not sufficient to process the amount of waste that is generated locally. Unfortunately, the problem does not end there. While China does not now accept waste, the burden has been passed onto other nations such as Malaysia, India and Thailand.
We know that waste is often moved from country to country, but a lack of transparency and traceability begs the question of who is responsible for waste – the producer, governments, the consuming country, the recycling country, or the individual consumer?
There has also been a stagnation in recycling rates. For example, in London some councils have debated giving up on recycling altogether as incineration (while being criticised for its energy use and emissions) is seen as less polluting and complex than landfill and recycling. In 2017/18 Westminster council sent 82% of all household waste, including recycling, for incineration.
These slowing rates are caused by a range of factors, from funding to policy to consumer behaviour. It can be hard to clearly measure rates of recycling, as it is hard to follow specific waste down an entire waste stream. We do know though that our current recycling systems only capture about one fifth of the recyclable material we use. It’s clear that we need to get some answers on how to improve our recycling capabilities.
What Alternatives Are There?
Activism and Change
Leading packaging NGO Wrap created The Plastics Pact, signed by many leading brands, which sets ambitious targets for an increase in recycling and reduction of single use plastic items by 2025, a mere 5 years away. This week, the UK banned 3 out of 10 target products mentioned in the pact: plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. This shows that aggressive lobbying can work, and will hopefully set a precedent for more items and geographies to be adopted under similar schemes.
Science and Innovation
We mentioned chemical recycling in our latest blog, but a sign of the speed of current innovation to solve the plastics crisis is that since then even more impressive science has emerged.
A new super-enzyme that eats plastic bottles six times faster than previously has emerged which could be ready for use in a year or two and also has the added benefit that it can work at room temperature. Scientists at the University of Portsmouth have adapted natural enzymes first found in Japan in 2016 by combining them with an engineered version that appeared in 2018. Their potential has caused widespread hope that nature and modern science can together provide a solution to our mounting plastic problem.
Bioplastics have also emerged as a potential alternative to virgin plastics. These use organic alternatives rather than petroleum, often using sugarcane and corn to convert sugar into polylactic acids (PLAs). Because this can be done as a by-product of sugar or ethanol production, this type of plastic is cheaper and more common than alternatives using microorganisms. The major argument to support the use of bioplastics is that only the amount of carbon associated with the organic material will be released back into the atmosphere, rather than carbon originally trapped safely underground in the form of oil, which once released adds to the overall carbon footprint of the planet.
However, bioplastic isn’t immune to its own challenges. Using food items like corn or sugarcane for plastic is contentious in an already food-scarce world. These crops also take up land and water. The largest challenge however is that bioplastics need specific conditions in order to degrade successfully. Industrial composting is necessary to bring the bioplastic up to a heat high enough to allow it to break down within a meaningful timeframe. This means that if bioplastic ends up in landfill along with most petroleum-based plastic, it will still last for decades and cause pollution in our oceans. To combat this challenge, the UK has recently implemented new standards for bioplastics, seeking to eliminate a wide umbrella term that might be used by materials that still contain microplastics. But essentially, until we get better at getting rid of bioplastic properly, it is still a potentially polluting product.
The fashion industry has embraced recycled materials at an increasing pace, with brands such as Allbirds trainers leading the way. Their shoes are made from recycled materials – a range of wool, wood, sugar and eucalyptus fibres. Each pair comes with a label detailing its carbon footprint, in a drive for transparency and accountability.
Construction currently accounts for the majority of problematic waste globally. Industry-leading Danish textile company Kvadrat has started to take advantage of the fact that 95% of textiles are recyclable but only 25% are. As part of their ‘Really’ project, their fabric is being made into recycled materials that can be used to challenge the design and architecture industry to re-think how to embrace a circular economy.
At Czarnikow, we feel responsible for the fact that we work with organisations for whom plastic is a central part of their business. This is why, when moving into new packaging areas such as PET, we must ensure that we inform ourselves about the potential dangers and work to increase the capacity for recycling in our supply chains. Indeed, many of our clients have made bold commitments to increasing recycling of plastics and we stand ready to support them in these goals.
We recognise that packaging pollution is a global problem that we cannot overcome alone, and hope to work together with plastic producers and consumers, global and national corporations, NGOs and policy-makers to find solutions to our plastic crisis that are beneficial to all.
Author: Carys Wright