Every year, the world loses billions of euros a year through poor waste management. Recycling rates vary significantly by country and region; while in the EU, rates average around 30%, only 14-18% of total waste globally is thought to be recycled according to the OECD. And the rates vary by polymer too, with polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene being recycled about 10% of the time, but polystyrene and polypropylene often close to never. If it is not recycled, it is either incinerated, landfilled, or becomes environmental pollution.
Just last year, scientists reported finding plastic in the Mariana Trench – the deepest part of the ocean at over 10,000 metres below.
Up until recently, many European countries were heavily reliant on exporting significant quantities of recyclable plastics, however in March 2018 China placed strict restrictions on its import, leading to a major restructure of the worlds plastics trade. In the months that followed, much of Europe’s plastic waste continued to make its way overseas but not all destinations were able to competently handle the increase. In January alone, Malaysia’s environment minister returned 150 shipping containers of illegal waste to 13 countries including France and the UK.
Since 2016, plastics exports have halved as a result of the ban, and a new solution is beginning to thrive; a digitally-powered supply chain that takes advantage of opportunities much closer to home.
A complex technical challenge
Unlike its virgin counterpart, the world of plastics recycling is complex. Industry stalwarts BP and Total, having been in business for decades, have made it easy for polymers purchasers to buy virgin materials direct. An uncomplicated supply chain, it delivers reliable quality every time.
The emerging world of the circular economy and of recycled materials, however, is far more nascent and fragmented. In Europe there are perhaps only 20 big stakeholders within the virgin plastics economy, in comparison there are more than 800 recyclers. Further, demand for recycled plastics has remained low, accounting for only 6% of total demand on account of affordable oil prices. To date, this has kept investment in the sector to a minimum, making change incremental rather than decisive.
Reimagining plastics recycling is further complicated by technical challenges. Every plastics recycler knows the difficulty of collecting, regrinding, compounding, and finding a buyer. It is a slow process made more complicated by the fact that there is little standardisation within the industry. While most recyclers offer basic analysis on their feedstocks, to find the right match for a specific grade or application, buyers are often faced with the burden of testing potential sources for additives, density, melt flow and contamination themselves. Understandably, food-grade recycled materials are particularly onerous to source. The need for comprehensive analysis often makes it difficult, if not prohibitively expensive, for buyers to obtain large batches of recycled plastics in any one grade from any one supplier. Further, even if the buyer can secure a source, it then has the headache of sorting out one-time logistics to get it from A to B.
A digitally powered circular economy
For Europe to build a truly circular plastics waste economy, a multi-billion euro industry in the making, greater cooperation amongst all key players to streamline the process from start to finish is a must. That is why bringing the supply chain together digitally onto one platform will make all the difference.
Innovative French circular economy start-up Poly To Poly is one company doing just that, bringing together nearly 300 polymer recyclers from across Europe into one platform to consolidate the procurement process. It has its own laboratory to analyse and certify every polymer source available on the platform against strict safety and quality standards of its own, as well as adhering to the European Commission’s regulations. By having complete insight into the quality of materials listed, Poly To Poly can easily match specific manufacturer requirements such as grade, price, quantity, quality, and characteristics to the various solutions available from different recyclers.
By collating the data from all the materials into one place, the platform also provides a new level of market transparency. The platform automatically collates pricing and quality data together, creating a much simpler decision-making process. With prices displayed including delivery, it makes recycled options much easier to compare against virgin materials. By bringing together the supply chain, Poly To Poly smooths a path for easier coordination and it can also leverage the network to find materials more easily on behalf of manufacturers too.
A case in point, a composite decking manufacturer came to the startup to ask for their helping in sourcing a suitable source of recycled plastic to manufacture their range of building materials. The manufacturer had two key requirements. First, the recycled materials would need to be able to combine with wood in a certain way so as to retain its strength but be malleable during production. Second, the final product would need to have specific permeability properties. Together, the two requirements formed an interesting request. Relying on Poly To Poly’s laboratory expertise, the manufacturer was able to test potential feedstocks for these characteristics before committing to an order.
A carbon saving
The composite decking industry is just one way to use recycled plastic that could help to reduce carbon emissions and keep millions of bottles and other single use items out of landfill and out of the ocean. But there are thousands more all over the world. By bringing the supply chain together and developing the necessary expertise to match any specification to a feedstock, Poly To Poly could reduce carbon emissions by millions of tonnes. That is because, for every tonne of plastic that is recycled, three to five barrels of oil are saved. On top of that, it can also help to cut down on transportation miles, by helping local manufacturers and suppliers to find each other. It is a model that can be replicated worldwide.
While the oil price has tumbled recently, making virgin plastics cheaper than ever, the interest in recycled plastics has not waned. Hurdles remain, such as implementing recycling techniques suitable for the recycled polymers to enter the food plastics market. But the next major step for the industry will be to reach a level of scale and standardisation that means manufacturers need not worry about feedstock reliability or need to choose between competitive pricing and sustainability. They can have both.