Plastic recycling targets will never be met until new processes are approved

A recent update from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that key targets on plastic recycling and reuse are likely to be missed. The foundation is behind the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, signed by 80 corporate brand owners.

It’s disappointing that progress is falling short of what’s been agreed. However, certain areas have come further than others. 59% of signatory brands, for example, have decreased their virgin plastic use. That, unfortunately, is overshadowed in the report by the fact that total volume of plastics used in packaging has increased – including an increase in the volume of virgin plastics used. So despite positive action from brand owners, growth in overall demand for consumables has outstripped the progress being made.

A target for 100% reusable, compostable or recyclable packaging by 2025 is now highly likely to be missed. But that goal, set out in 2018, seemed lofty to anyone familiar with the recycling infrastructure in developed nations, let alone developing ones.

16% of signatories’ packaging is flexible, and this is in part what is hindering progress, in the eyes of the EMF. The foundation calls for a more radical rethink on the future of flexible packaging, but while no credible alternative has been that offers the same protective properties for foodstuffs, medical products and other consumables, it’s hard to understand why the 2025 goal was deemed realistic in the first place.

Food contact, of course, remains a challenge, with around 50% of all packaging produced. Being destined for food. And yet sadly the report from the EMF fails to take into account the challenges faced by stakeholders in this area. A recent update to the rules from the European Commission are frustrating for food packaging manufacturers on – or selling to – the continent, as planned recycled content quotas will impact them more than other businesses. The EC has said that starting 10 July 2023, food contact materials containing recyclate must have had its source materials recovered using only containing only ‘suitable recycling technology’. However, as many new technologies are emerging, this well-meaning piece of bureaucracy needs to be back up by a swift approvals process from the EC.

For example, From October 2024, quality assurance systems for the collection and pre-processing of waste plastics will need to be certified by a third-party in order to comply with the regulations.

This is a good thing, as it will means more than 200 mechanical PET recycling processes can be approved with individual authorisations – however, the timeframe doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre for any EMF signatories hoping to meet the 2025 target.

Interplasinsights: By Dave Gray