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Collective approach vital to boost PCR plastics

Collaboration, greater dialogue and fresh thinking are needed to increase the use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic in new products, according to experts in the industry. 

The issue was the theme of a virtual discussion on the second day of the 2021 annual conference of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). While brands are increasingly making claims of sustainability by using PCR in some products, the speakers agreed great challenges remained – not least when lower prices for oil attract manufacturers back to virgin resin.

Eadaoin Quinn, director of business development and procurement at EFS Plastics, said a typical question was whether or not there was sufficient PCR to meet demand. However, she preferred to ask: was there the right demand to meet supply? Was PCR used for the right products?

The proportion of drinks bottles manufactured using recycled content was growing under the momentum of brands’ own sustainability agendas, she said, so formal mandating of such content by policymakers was not necessary. She argued it was important to focus on other uses such as pipes for which 100% PCR plastic was highly feasible. ‘But if oil gets cheaper, it will become a problem,’ she said. ‘That’s where legislation is needed.’

Quinn did not believe that educating the public was fundamental to greater recycling. ‘We have to make it easier. If we see value in PCR plastic, we should go and get it from them. The fault in the system is a lack of demand.’

Nina Bellucci Butler, ceo of consultancy Stina, felt a ‘seismic transformative shift in mindset’ was needed. She wondered if industry was ready to meet self-imposed and legislative mandates. She thought collaboration across the supply chain was crucial and a roadmap could embrace greater innovation and popular concern. ‘Recyclers are natural innovators,’ she said.

Steve Alexander, ceo of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, said recycling plastic had always been a challenge because the system was seen as a cost. ‘The demand market monetises that system,’ he said. ‘The component of recycling has to include a demand element, whether it is mandated or not.’

Product design was critical, he said, and brands and converters had a big part to play through design and ensuring they used PCR plastic in their market place. ‘Brands also control what they tell their consumers,’ he added. ‘The message should be “buy my sustainable product”.’

Alexander said ISRI and APR were working on a protocol to act as a tool to help brands better design their products for recycling and to make recycling easier for the consumer. He was worried that manufacturers’ existing commitments to use PCR by 2025 already exceeded by four times the amount currently being collected.

He repeated a comment made earlier in the discussion that ‘recycling is the engine of the circular economy’.

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