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Opportunity rather than uncertainty

Taking responsibility as an industry is not only about recycling materials. It entails an holistic approach in which recyclers, producers, the packing industry and consumers work together, insists BIR plastics division chairman Henk Alssema of Vita Plastics in the Netherlands.

This year, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the global economy. Coronavirus has put the most businesses around the world under pressure and our sector has not escaped its effects. However, coronavirus is not the only reason the recycling industry is struggling at the moment. The export prohibition to Asia, relatively low oil prices, uncertainties regarding Brexit and protectionist policies operated by many countries all impact international trade.

Although the future would appear to be bleak, I believe that times of uncertainty provide opportunities to change existing structures. Not change for change’s sake but simply because current structures are no longer sustainable. In the recycling sector we realise that there’s no future in recycling plastics in a linear system and that is why we are endeavouring to make the transition to a circular economy.

A new economy where we close the loops and cooperate with other players in the value chain. That presents an enormous challenge: how can we encourage a sector which is reasonably closed by nature to cooperate with these other players? The answer is straightforward: just do it. Seek links with industry, product designers and manufacturers of products and develop new value chains together.

In 2016, we started making business operations in our company Vita Plastics more flexible with the principle: ‘we know all about plastic recycling but we don’t need to have all the disciplines in-house to become part of a circular economy’. That was our starting point and in the early days we really needed to get used to this new way of thinking.

In the end, it meant we were able to develop some fantastic projects. For example, in cooperation with a large waste manager we developed a bio-bucket made from the waste collected by that same waste manager. Vita Plastics ensured the waste was processed into usable raw materials and then we jointly invested in a mould to produce the bucket. An injection moulder used our mould and raw materials to make the product.

The resulting bio-buckets were purchased by the waste manager and issued to households in their collection area to encourage the collection of organic waste. In this case, the supplier of the waste also became the purchaser of the end product.

This example shows that we, the recycling industry, can play an important role in the new economy. The bio-bucket in itself is not innovative; the innovation comes in the way the product is created and produced. Everyone who is involved in this value chain uses their expertise to achieve the intended result.

The example shows how our business deals with the circular economy but it is possible to come up with many more initiatives. We have learned that working together expands your horizons.

I think we have to reinvent our industry. We have to take responsibility. It is not only about recycling materials; it is about a common approach, in which we work together as a waste sector, as a recycling community, as producers, packing industry and consumers to build new value chains. Chains that are not only built on value to make money, but also to have a positive ecological footprint and a social perspective in creating fair trade jobs.

There are many opportunities but we have to jump into action. Let’s make sure the recycling sector will make the difference in the new circular economy. As we all know, recycling is the backbone of the circular economy.

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