Low demand and high imports endanger Europe’s plastics recycling industry, sector leaders are warning. They say that unless urgent measures are taken to alleviate the pressure on recyclers, Europe could fail to achieve its legally binding and newly proposed recycling and recycled content targets.
The plastics recycling market in Europe has been heavily destabilised throughout 2023. Since the beginning of the year, prices of recyclates have slumped by up to 50 % while cheaper imports from outside the EU have significantly increased.
‘The future of the recycling industry is at stake and immediate action in form of enforcement measures is needed to avoid a shutdown of recycling plants across Europe,’ says Ton Emans, president of Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE). ‘Ceasing recycling activities would have knock-on effects on jobs, the overall economy in Europe and the environment.’
According to PRE, the declining market situation applies to all recycled polymers and is best represented in the PET industry. Without a level-playing field, PET imports to the EU have increased by 20 % from Q2 2022 to Q2 2023, hitting demand for EU rPET. These disruptive market dynamics prompted an estimated 10 % decrease in rPET over the same period.
Recycled content boost
With the targets set by the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive nearing, the pressure to boost the use of recycled content in PET beverage bottles is high. However, rather than supplying the demand with rPET produced in Europe, manufacturers have turned to non-transparent imports from non-European countries.
Enforcement ‘a must’
According to PRE, legislation has proved ‘one of the most effective instruments in setting the course’ for a circular plastic future. ‘However, enforcement measures are a must for its effective implementation,’ it insists. ‘Without this, Europe risks untraceable, unverified imports of plastics participating toward the European recycling targets.’
PRE argues an independent third-party certification system ‘would solve these issues’. It would also help to avoid unverified declarations and promote traceability, particularly for food contact materials, while boosting the transparency on the origin of recycled plastics, the organisation insists.
Support is crucial
Meanwhile EuRIC, the umbrella organisation representing Europe’s recycling industry, calls for urgent measures to support plastics recycling in Europe:
- Implementation of pragmatic mandatory EU recycled content targets for plastics to stimulate demand for recycled materials and secure investments to scale up recycling capacity in Europe.
- Strong mechanisms for verification and traceability of recycled polymers, to protect the European recycling industry from unfair competition and fraudulent import. When quantifying recycled plastic content, mandatory third-party certifications are needed to preserve the transparency and credibility of the industry.
- Introduction of incentives, whether market or tax-based, to bridge the price gap between virgin and recycled plastics. For instance, fiscal incentives in the form of lower VAT rates for products made of recycled plastics can have a significant impact on stimulating recycling.
- Mandatory collection targets and design-for-recycling criteria to enhance the quantity and quality of inputs to recycling processes.