World: “Plastic recycling is a myth”

Most consumer goods companies will “almost certainly” miss their goals to create a circular economy for plastic, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says in its Global Commitment Progress Report for 2022, which was published yesterday.

The Global Commitment was launched in October 2018 and has united since more than 500 organizations behind a common vision of a circular economy for plastics. As plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, between 500-1000 years for some types, it is imperative to tackle this problem massively. Driven by the goal of tackling plastic pollution at its source, companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally have committed to ambitious 2025 targets to help realize that common vision.

In 2021, contrary to the targets, brands and retailers have significantly increased their overall consumption of plastic packaging (+4.3%) compared to the previous year. This increase has outpaced progress on recycled content, leading to a 2.5% increase in their use of virgin plastic compared to 2020, which is back to similar levels as 2018. The total plastic use has increased by +5.0% since 2018.

Progress has been made on increasing the use of recycled plastics. Companies involved in the study have doubled their use of recycled content in three years. The share of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content [that is material that is made from the items that consumers recycle every day] has doubled from 4.8% in 2018 to 10.0% in 2021.

While PepsiCo’s PCR rate is at 6.3% and therefore still below average, Coca-Cola sits already at 13.6%, twice the rate of PepsiCo but still well below the target of 26% for 2025. Achieving this goal requires compound annual growth of 27% across all companies.

Even in the very unlikely case that the overall PCR target rate of 26% could be met, this means that conversely around 74% of the new plastic will not be made from recycled raw materials, which seems a rather unambitious goal.

Part of the problem is the fact, that still more than one third of all plastic used by companies is still not reusable, recyclable, or compostable (RRC)  and that this percentage has only decreased from 36.8% to 34.6%  in the last three years.

According to the report, the goal of 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025 is now almost impossible to achieve for most companies although this widely differs from one company to another. While PepsiCo’s RRC rate has even deteriorated from 77.0% to 76.1% last year, Coca-Cola has almost achieved the goal with a RRC rate of 99.9% in 2021 (up from 99.0% a year before).

Activist groups claim that it is incomprehensible that, while technically possible, only around a third (32%) of companies will deliver on their given promises, while more than a third (35%) will clearly miss them and the last third (32%) is unclear. They ask for legal binding rules instead of voluntary targets and for fines if the targets are not achieved.

Greenpeace speaks of the "failed, toxic plastic recycling myth" in a report published last week. “The plastics and products industries have been promoting plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste since the early 1990s. Some 30 years later, the vast majority of U.S. plastic waste is still not recyclable. The U.S. plastic recycling rate was estimated to have declined to about 5–6% in 2021, down from a high of 9.5% in 2014.”

Inger Andersen, executive director at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) agrees with it. "We can't recycle our way out of this mess — we need holistic system change."

Role model is the European Union that has started last year to ban single-use plastic (SUP) products such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks, polystyrene drink and food vessels. Restricted but still allowed are SUP bags, bottles, beverage and food containers for immediate consumption, packets and wrappers, tobacco filters, sanitary items and wet wipes, but producers have to pay for the clean-up. The final goal is an EU circular economy model via which plastic is either forbidden or any remaining disposable plastics will be completely reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Some of the plastic is hard or nearly impossible to recycle such as bioplastics, composite plastic, plastic-coated wrapping paper and polycarbonate. Well known non-recyclable plastics include cling film and blister packaging. In order to achieve the 100% circular economy in the EU such products will have to be banned by 2030 as well.

Another problem is the impurities in the recycled plastic. According to a 2021 report published by the Canadian Government, toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging. PET recycling has already to deal with this problem today.

The ultimate answer is a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution, which is to be negotiated in at the United Nations global climate summit that started last Sunday in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.

“If the principle of ‘extended producer responsibility’ can be enshrined in the treaty it could also importantly force corporate polluters to pay for and implement recycling or reuse programs,” says Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy Initiative that co-manages the Global Commitment.

It has to be seen how this will all affect the beverage market that widely uses shrink wraps, plastic lids, PET bottles and kegs, plastic crates and the more. Some of the products seem easy to replace or adapt others less so.

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