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How will plastic recyclers get back on the horse?

Plastic recycling centres in the US are ‘really pinched’ at the moment, according to Sally Houghton. The materials manager at Plastic Recycling Corp. in California says collection volumes are slowly but surely going up again following a coronavirus-induced standstill. ‘But we’re still seeing a very limited rate of redemption of containers in our area,’ she lamented during the recent webinar organised by the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR).

‘It’s hard to compete with the extremely low prices of virgin oil. Margins are very tight right now.’ On top of volatile prices, producers are turning their back on rPET and other grades as momentum towards using recycled content has faded. ‘The recycling industry is on its knees. The reality for recyclers is that unless they experience immediate financial relief, some of them won’t make it,’ Houghton added.

Wake-up time

Following the lockdown in China and heavy restrictions in many other countries, there has been little demand for plastic scrap since early March. ‘It’s a logical consequence,’ reasoned Steve Wong of the China Scrap Plastics Association who reported that domestic demand was still low. ‘The import market is literally only 20 to 30% of the normal level.’

The good news, Wong observed, was that Europe was ‘waking up again – slowly’. Due to the continuing health concerns, there is strong demand for plastic to produce personal protection equipment, such as face shields, as well as plastic packaging.

Carrot or stick?

Some recyclers are anxious that big brands will prefer the cheaper plastic option and simply abandon their 2025 recycling commitments. ‘I sincerely hope this won’t be the case. But they will likely scale down their ambitions,’ Houghton said. ‘As yet, it is unclear when things will go back to normal – and just how normal will that new scenario be?’

Houghton suggests ‘intervention’ is needed if the industry is to meet any recycling goals. ‘The pandemic has shown that change doesn’t just happen naturally.’ At the same time, she thinks that reacting too harshly is inadvisable. ‘I’m a big believer in offering the carrot, rather than the stick.’

Her words are echoed by Clement Lefebre of Veolia Proprete France Recycling: ‘Setting recycling targets is a better way forward than demanding taxes. I don’t think taxes are the way to help our industry.’

Webinar host Henk Alssema of Vita Plastics in the Netherlands confirmed that the price gap between virgin and recycled plastics had ‘melted away’. Recycling companies were going through ‘one of the most challenging times ever seen’. ‘First we had trade wars and the Brexit uncertainty, now we have huge stocks and post-Covid liquidity concerns.’ The latter is a bitter pill to swallow for companies that have made large investments in recent years.

UAE sector has fallen behind

One of the most pressing issues for people in the Middle East is that bottles are being designed to be thinner and lighter. ‘It’s got to a point where waste collectors are considering whether to collect them or not,’ said Mahmoud Al Sharif of Sharif Metals. They are asking ‘Is it still worth it?’ now they are getting less money for the same quantity of bottles.

‘Also, we have fallen behind in terms of awareness,’ notes Al Sharif, based in the United Arab Emirates. ‘Not all authority figures realise plastic scrap is a resource. They may have given permission to set up plastic recycling facilities but there is not enough volume available due to the plastic waste ban.’

He added: ‘We also need advanced technology, more legislation to support circular solutions, and better infrastructure to encourage businesses to build recycling centres in our region.’ In conclusion, he said, the Gulf Coast had a ‘long way to go’ to catch up with best practice elsewhere.

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