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  • Writer's pictureTrish Hyde

Recycling: The battleground for limited responsibility

by Trish Hyde, MD The Plastics Circle

Is this (insert packaging item here) recyclable? Yes. Well possibly. OK, maybe yes, but possibly not. OK, no.

The daily challenge of working out if something is recyclable or not can be exasperating. A simple question deserves a straight answer… you’d think. But alas, as we know, there is no straight answer – and the one you receive will depend on where you ask the question.

In 2016, as the (then) CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant, I negotiated the five-year strategic plan that was endorsed by State and Federal ministers. It included an on-pack recycling labelling scheme. At the time it seemed a no-brainer, especially given the similar schemes that operate in the UK and US. Not so… In the ensuing two years, the landscape has dramatically changed - thanks in part to China’s (understandable) refusal to continue to accept our waste plastic - and the growing divide between what is technically recyclable and what is actually recycled and reused.

Recyclable in a perfect world

As one industry expert once told me, ‘everything is theoretically recyclable - in some form’ - adding that external factors, including the quality of sorting and the availability of second-life markets, will determine if recycling occurs.

Given this large caveat, the question we need to answer is, at what point is it acceptable to assume that recyclable equates to a high likelihood of it actually being recycled and reused?

Consider PET bottles (your common fizzy drink bottle) - the most in-demand recovered plastic. They are universally heralded as recyclable because PET is the most recycled and reused plastic. There is strong demand for recycled PET. Yes, it should be labelled as recyclable because it is very likely to be recycled. However, this changes if your clear PET bottle is co-mingled with other plastic types, where its value is diminished and it may be sent to landfill.

For the majority of people, the fact that the PET bottle is likely to have a second-life would satisfy it being labelled as recyclable. But PET is only one type of plastic - there are more than 43,000 types and combinations of plastics, making the test harder and harder to apply.  

Recyclable in a technical world

While just about anything can be theoretically recycled, sometimes the sticking point is capability.

On the whole, advanced recycling infrastructure supports the circular economy (a new economic model, where recovery and re-use in second-life markets is fundamental).  However the technology can have perverse outcomes. Consider the fate of the standard disposable coffee cup (paper mixed with plastic). It is technically able to be recycled. Unfortunately, modern automated waste sorting infrastructure cannot separate it from other material. If the cup is flattened it goes into the paper recovery stream; and if left intact, it goes into the plastic recovery stream The result – levels of plastic in the paper stream that may cause irreparable contamination, or levels of paper in the plastic stream that lowers its value. Contamination is the enemy of recycling. Ironically, good intentions can diminish the overall result.   

Recyclable in the real world

Some brands have been looking to claim recyclability on the basis that, regardless of actuality, the plastic used is technically able to be recycled. This has led to the recycling industry’s recent announcement of their definition of recyclability, and it sets a higher standard: The plastic must be collected, sorted and aggregated at levels that support its direct or indirect value; it must be able to be processed through commercial material recovery facilities; and it must be a material input into new products or packaging (second-life markets). 

In considering this definition, overlay the complexity of export markets (each with different infrastructures and second-life markets) – and the ability to make a defensible recyclability claim reduces accordingly.

Commitments to Packaging Recyclability and Recovered Content

Assurances regarding recyclability are good and needed, but they only address part of the problem. Focusing on making packaging recyclable without creating the demand from second-life markets and the means to collect, will only exacerbate our plastic waste issues.

Maybe it is time to put our efforts into recycled content commitments rather than recyclability claims if we truly want a sustainable world driven by transformational circular economies.

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