In order to make plastics a circular economy, we must reach beyond the low-hanging fruit.
Low hanging fruit
This is an industry-wide call to action from An Vossen, Executive Manager of the Belgian non-profit plastic recycling thinktank Plarebel and European Association of Plastics Recycling and Recovery Organisations (EPRO) board member. Vossen believes the entire supply chain - from materials developers, to converters, to brands, to consumers - needs to dig a little deeper to put a stop to landfilling plastic waste.
"For the consumer, plastic is plastic. I'm more and more convinced that the easier the message is, the more likely the consumer is to sort their waste for collection," she stated.
The other obstacle between plastics and circularity is that recycled plastics must have a value, and putting recycled plastics back into the production chain has to be economically viable.
"It's not something that collection systems or recyclers can solve, it's something the whole chain should work towards. It's chicken and egg; do you collect it first or have an outlet for it?"
Vossen believes that change and innovation will be able to flow more easily if best practice is set within industry, as opposed to being trickled down through the legislative process. In the Netherlands, for example, materials developers are around the table with collectors and legislators finding possible solutions and putting them to the test.
Innovation needs to be applied to collecting, sorting and recycling, but also finding end markets for recycled plastics giving them value. One way to streamline all of these issues is a deposit system, but while these are popular for bottle collection around the world, Vossen is reluctant to champion deposit systems as an incentive for consumers to recycle.
Vossen explained that deposit systems are a distorted form of giving value.
"If you want to change the consumer's mind and turn plastics into a resource, you need a more holistic approach," she explained.
At present, there are two main systems for sorting plastics in the waste stream: infrared and visual sorting. Neither of these systems are working perfectly to improve the quality of the recycled plastic material, but Vossen believes a digital watermarking scheme could be the answer.
"Digital watermark for me is very interesting," she said. "You're not adding something to a bottle, you're not spraying anything or mixing anything in to the material."
In order for a recycling system to be viable, Vossen explained that it has to be cheap, detectable and it cannot be removable until it is recycled. If it worked, it could potentially make a clear PET waste stream for food contact recycled materials, bringing value to a huge amount of incoming plastics.
"Digital watermarks are just changing the surface of the packaging and are detectable by technology," she explained. "Of course waste packaging is deformed so you have to investigate if you deform a bottle what influence it has on the accuracy of the reading."
Everything beginning to change
"At the moment everything is beginning to change," Vossen stated. "Now is an exciting time for recycling. It's beginning to seep in that recycling is important and to understand that polymer producers can help us. It's very exciting to see because they have all the technology and we can use that knowhow combined with the recyclers' knowhow."
Vossen believes the time is also right for brands and retailers to use their platform to educate consumers about the materials, giving civilians a better foundation of knowledge to help them understand waste and recycling.
"We need to learn the value of our waste if we want a truly circular economy, and that involves everybody along the supply chain."