Will Blue Planet turn the tide on plastics recycling?

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By Maxine Perella

The haunting images of ocean plastic pollution that Blue Planet II brought to people’s living rooms can not be underestimated. The ripple effect of the BBC documentary series is already being felt far and wide, with plastic taxes, bans and offset schemes now being introduced across the world.

But push mechanisms like these won’t work in isolation. If less plastic is to be produced, there needs to be more investment in alternative, cleaner materials that offer similar levels of high performance. And if more plastics are to be recovered and recycled, there must be viable markets to sell these secondary materials into. The lack of pull levers here is still a stumbling block.

One pragmatic solution could lie in the growth of closed loop plastics recycling. While still a niche business activity, this approach aims to retain the value of the plastic’s original purpose rather than downcycling it into a lower grade material as so often happens with traditional recycling.

Over the past 12 months, there has been a notable rise in voluntary producer responsibility as companies look to invest in targeting specific materials that they can take back into their own supply chains. Examples include P&G’s Fairy Ocean Plastic bottle product launch and Dell’s intention to build a new ocean plastics supply chain as it looks to increase its annual use of ocean bound plastic by a factor of ten by 2025.

The challenge lies in scaling up such efforts, however. A report released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation last year found that closed loop plastics recycling faces several systemic barriers – these include the scale and effectiveness of collection activities, a lack of markets for recyclates and limited skills, knowledge and collaboration between value chain partners.

In a lot of cases, the quality and performance of recycled plastic – whether dredged from the ocean or not – doesn’t match that of virgin plastics. There are aesthetic limitations too, particularly for the consumer goods market. For example, it’s hard to produce light or bright colours in recycled plastics, and the resins can contain traces of metallic particles, making it tricky to paint the surface of a product part.

Dell’s closed loop plastics activity is currently focused on ABS – the company says this is the easiest post-consumer plastic to work with, in terms of restoring it to the level of quality needed for new components. Its experiments with other recycled plastics, such as PC/ABS blends, have encountered more difficulties due to the lack of consistency in the source material.

Philips is also looking to scale up its use of recycled plastics – the company has set a target for 15% of its total revenue to come from products or solutions that are considered circular by 2020. One metric it is using here is for more of its products to contain at least 30% recycled plastics. Like Dell, Philips has found the colour and finish of recycled plastics to be limiting factors, particularly for component parts that are visible to the consumer, such as outer casings.

In order to overcome some of these issues, brand owners will need to work more closely with plastic recyclers and compounders. This may involve the formation of more vertically integrated supply chains and/or strategic partnerships between reprocessors and suppliers of virgin plastics so that the performance properties of recycled plastic resins can be further refined prior to manufacture.

Dell’s Reconnect e-waste takeback programme is one an example of such integration. Within this scheme, the company works with a dedicated recycling partner whose subsidiaries cover the entire value chain from waste sorting back to the moulding of new parts. This has enabled the consolidation of plastic reprocessing capabilities for bale breaking, shredding, sorting, purification, modification, colour matching and compounding in a single facility.

Philips meanwhile has partnered with a plastics recycler and compounder in Western Europe to specifically target its own-brand end-of-life vacuum cleaners to obtain a purer stream of recycled plastics – these are reused to create a grade of plastic that can meet the company’s specifications and be incorporated into new vacuum cleaners, such as this product.

 

This type of collaboration is vital if more circular solutions to issues like plastic pollution are to be found. It also begs the question whether more upskilling and consolidation is required within the plastics recycling industry and related sectors, to unlock the level of innovation and scale needed to make closed loop plastics recycling a commercial reality.