Chemicals research firm SRI Consulting, based in Menlo Park, Calif., created a few ripples last month when it published a new analysis of the PET bottle recycling industry. The study said that in many cases recycling bottles is no better — and could be worse — than landfilling.
The study's key finding — widely reported — is that a recycling facility needs to recover at least 50 percent of the material it takes in if it is to achieve a more environmentally favorable carbon footprint than simply disposing directly to landfill. It is controversial and goes against European recycling strategy.
Europe is a world leader in plastics packaging recycling and PET bottles are its biggest success story. The most recent data from the European PET bottle recycling association Petcore, in Brussels, showed that PET bottle recycling exceeded 48 percent last year — 3 billion pounds of PET.
So it is reasonable to ask: Does this SRI study mean promoters of PET bottle recycling have been marching in the wrong direction? Well, and I'm not a recycling fanatic, I believe the answer to that question is no. You just have to look beneath the SRI headline and into the detail of its analysis.
SRI Consulting's research analyst and report author Eric Johnson says that take-back and deposit-based schemes across Europe — which he estimates achieve PET yields of around 70 percent — make sound sense in carbon-footprint terms. It is curbside mixed waste collection that he sees as problematic — he calculates typical yields for these at around 45 percent.
That suggests — even if you adopt the SRI measure of carbon footprint as the sole environmental factor — that today's mixed curbside collection schemes are not that far away from the target of 50 percent PET recovery. Given some additional optimization of the collection, cleaning and sorting processes, it seems hard to believe that yield cannot be increased. And Johnson agrees that recycled PET can have a lower carbon footprint than virgin PET, and that companies using recycled PET in their products can genuinely claim to be offering a lower-carbon alternative.
Plastics recycling involves a great deal of politics. Few on either side of the environmental debate would argue that the direct environmental gains it yields will reverse climate-change trends.
However, in Europe, would we really have seen so much attention paid to lightweighting and sustainability without the region's demanding recycling targets? I don't think so. Maybe that is the most valuable environmental benefit of plastics recycling.
Smith is editor of European Plastics News.