Much has changed in the world of plastics recycling over the past decade. Once a sector with little prestige and even less claim to notice, plastics recycling is now considered one of the main pillars, if not the backbone, of the transition to a circular economy.
It's a new experience for a group that had previously not counted for much in the plastics industry.
So, what changed? Simply put, the world woke up.
Champions of the plastics industry may extol the virtues of plastics; its critics point incessantly to such major detriments as the vast mountain of plastic waste, the ongoing lack of effective end-of-life solutions, and the environmental and even health impacts associated with plastic production and use. Plastic production contributes to global warming; discarded plastic is choking the oceans and killing marine life; microplastics are so ubiquitous that they are in the air we breathe and the food we eat.
Plastics are not intrinsically evil and do, in fact, bring many, many benefits to society at large, but the world's insouciant approach to the management of these materials in the past might best be described as appallingly shortsighted.
Consumer demand for better plastic products, the publication of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy, the new legislation enacted by the EU — these and other factors have helped to shift mindsets and seek solutions.
The upshot has been a focus on plastics recycling.
"We need to radically increase the economics, quality and uptake of recycling," the New Plastics Economy report stated back in 2016. "Recycling must be profitable for business," declared the European strategy for plastics in 2018. The Circular Plastics Alliance and European Commission announced in 2020 a 10 million-tonne target of recycled plastic in new products on the EU market by 2025.
The European recycling industry has responded by stepping up to the plate. Design for recycling, improved collection, sorting and recycling processes have resulted in robust growth. Back in 1996, the total installed recycling capacity was estimated, roughly, at 200,000 tonnes. Today it amounts to more than 8.5 million tonnes and, according to Plastics Recyclers Europe, may well quadruple by 2030, as Europe has set recycled-content targets for packaging backed by regulations.
Chemical technology is emerging as a potential complement to traditional mechanical recycling. The PRSE show, launched in 2017 and due to take place in a few short weeks in Amsterdam, has grown into a major success, creating a forum for the sector to gain inspiration — and to network.
There are cynics who argue that plastics recycling doesn't work — that it is hopelessly impractical or, worse, that it is a myth. The figures tell a different story.
Plastics recycling cannot, by itself, solve the problem of plastic waste or create a more circular economy for plastics. But it is a vital part of the solution.
Karen Laird is editor of Sustainable Plastics magazine.