The ultimate balancing act

Nextek Founder and CEO Professor Edward Kosior discusses the plastics industry?s challenge of juggling sustainability, circularity and pollution.


The ultimate balancing act

Professor Edward Kosior

Climate change is not an event in the future. It is happening now. David Attenborough?s documentary Breaking Boundaries spells it out well ? we have already breached many of our planet?s boundaries and we can?t afford to be complacent about the actions we take to drastically reduce our carbon emissions and plastic pollution.

A report by PEW - Breaking the Plastic Wave - estimates that 11 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the ocean from land in 2016, adding to the estimated 150 million metric tonnes of plastic already in the ocean. Plastic flows into the ocean are projected to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tonnes per year. Even worse, because plastic remains in the ocean for hundreds of years, or longer, and may never biodegrade, the cumulative amount of plastic stock in the ocean could grow by 450 million metric tonnes in the next 20 years, with severe impacts on biodiversity, and ocean and human health.

Waste?s Role in the Climate Race

As we are all aware, plastic pollution does not stop at the ocean. The direct impact of waste management sits at the heart of climate change. Global waste currently generates over 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). More than half of possible CO2e savings from waste will come from increased recycling rates and increased recycled content of all material in the recycling stream.

It has been estimated that by significantly improving waste collection, sorting, and recycling we can reduce global GHG emissions by between 2.1 to 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2e per year compared with ?business as usual?.


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The ultimate balancing act Pivoting our View of ?Waste?

However, minimising our waste will only occur once we actively start unlocking the value in the materials we still consider belong in a ?waste? stream. Realistically we cannot eliminate plastic from the supply chain, and even if we did, that would not solve the world?s climate crisis. Quite the contrary.

According to a Waste Reduction Model (WARM), if all the 37.4 million tonnes of single-family recyclables were put back to productive use instead of lost to disposal, it would reduce US GHG emissions by 96 million metric tonnes of CO2e. It would also conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil and achieve the equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off US highways ? not to mention the generation of an estimated 370,000 full-time equivalent jobs. And that is just in the US.

Wasted Waste

As PEW rightly points out there is no one solution that will enable us to claw back our waste or reduce our carbon footprint, we urgently need to combine high-impact solutions from numerous different pathways. What is needed is a balance between improving recycling practices, expanding waste collection, and ensuring that disposal processes prevent plastic leakage.?Furthermore, we need to ensure that the chosen solutions don?t have unintended consequences as different solutions have very different GHG profiles.

It is a sobering fact that 80% of the packaging currently produced still goes to landfill or is potentially destined for waste-to-energy. Yet approximately a ton of CO2 is saved for every ton of plastic material diverted from landfill to be recycled.?

The likes of waste-to-energy may be heralded as a solution to our waste woes, but in truth the CO2e to produce energy from waste negates its benefits. Likewise, many are pinning their hopes on the optimistic promises of chemical recycling, which will undoubtedly play a role in reducing our mixed and complex waste but it is still a long way from scaling up and in the meantime still tips our carbon footprint in the wrong direction.


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The ultimate balancing act

The ultimate balancing act

Diverting waste to either of these solutions, in effect, is wasting waste, when we have far more impactful uses for plastic waste that have a much smaller carbon footprint.

Buying valuable time

We need to focus on driving rapid already-deliverable improvements in packaging waste through mechanical recycling meshed with cutting-edge sorting and decontamination technologies. This will buy time for those areas of consumption where carbon reductions are harder to achieve, to enable them to develop and test new technologies and approaches.?

As we increase the amount of recyclates we can use, we will be better placed to support the world as it shifts its consumption habits in order to minimise the global temperature rise.

Keeping innovation on track

Back in 2018, 70 brand-owners and organisations pledged for recycled content, generating a demand in Europe for 10 million tonnes per year of recycled plastics by 2025 in order to address their targets related to greater sustainability and carbon neutrality. Despite this the current capacity is projected to grow to just over 6.4 million tonnes, requiring a further capacity expansion of over 60% in less than four years.

What we need are all hands on deck to achieve the kind of targets set out by the British Plastics Federation (BPF) in their 2030 Roadmap. According to their report, if all plastic were recycled globally this could result in mean annual savings of 30 to 150 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to shutting between eight and 40 coal-fired power plants globally.

Major brands have the potential to create transformational change but they can?t afford to get side-tracked by innovations that are aimed more at the uninformed consumer than resolving their footprint, otherwise we risk venturing down cul-de-sacs rather than making genuine progress.

Beyond sorting

On to another potential dead-end that could occur if we stop short at the various innovative technologies for sorting post-consumer plastic waste. To be clear, sorting this waste is a key component of mechanical recycling and those in the recycling sector are keen to adopt the most effective system that can identify factors such as food-grade or non-food-grade besides the actual polymer.

But sorting alone will not solve our recycling challenges. Sorting is only the first part of the whole process. It is a vital step in the journey towards a true circular economy. However, we need to go beyond merely sorting waste to make any meaningful shift in how the world manages any short-lived materials to minimise and reduce current waste levels.

Ultimately, and regardless of how waste is identified and sorted, the world will still end up with a pile of well-sorted plastic that is of low value unless it can be properly re-used, and this requires cutting-edge washing, extrusion, filtration and decontamination.

Whether one opts for markers (such as fluorescent marker based PolyPRISM) or digital watermarks, the very fact that the sorting and identification processes can now be enhanced is a key step in the right direction.

Decontamination is the next crucial phase, to turn our well-sorted waste into valuable recyclates such as food-grade rPP, food-grade rHDPE and food-grade PET. Achieving the vision of near-zero plastic waste requires technological advances, brave new thinking, innovative business models and accelerating upstream innovation.

Unlocking the full value of our plastic materials will go a long way towards helping organisations honour their commitment to increase the level of recycled material they use in their packaging ? better still, this kind of coherent recycling strategy will have enormous impact on reducing post-consumer waste.

360-degree design for recycling

The world needs to focus on closing the plastic loop by taking each facet of the process from collection and sorting through to decontamination to ensure a transformational shift. The required technologies already exist and can tip the balance in the right direction. However, it is crucial to shift beyond fixating on one element of the solution and embrace the whole.


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The ultimate balancing act

To make better use of plastic packaging waste the world needs to help the recyclers turn it back into high quality recycled mono-polymers that can be re-used in new products.

Brand-owners who package and sell products need to be made responsible for the environmentally sound management of the packaging at the end of its life. Each product made will ultimately need a defined pathway suited to easy recycling and contain high levels of recycled content with the minimum of residual landfill materials.

They must also ensure there are acceptable end-of-life destinations for their packaging in the local market. This is particularly key in Asia where waste management is less developed and regulations are not as rigorous. Likewise, brand-owners need to ensure that all packages are non-toxic, recyclable and/or compostable. This may mean new packaging materials and designs. Some of this has been achieved in Europe and North America thanks to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programmes for packaging.

More thinking needs to be dedicated to making products that can be recycled simply and productively by recycling businesses. That means re-configuring ?difficult to recycle? packaging and optimising the composition, such as low or no pigmentation, mono construction through to readily removable adhesives and labels and benign inks.

If multiple sub-categories of packaging are created in response to the perception that sorting will have the capacity to create narrower fractions of materials, then the economics will diminish and issues of cross-contamination will increase. Ideally, the range of plastics used for packing should be standardised to the ?big four?, i.e. LDPE, HDPE, PP and PET.

Reduce Virgin

Any organisation involved in FMCG knows full well that they are going to have to drastically curb their dependence on virgin plastic if they are to meet their highly publicised recycled content targets and comply with the new plastic packaging laws. Achieving this will require a vast and new supply of high quality and food-grade recycled plastics, including PET, HDPE, LDPE and PP to turn into bottles, tubs, pots and trays.

Summing up

To date, our global, disparate initiatives still fall woefully short. We need to level out the playing field. Lower-income countries will struggle to meet global targets without significant support in the form of capital for waste management and material recovery ? and not just the lower-income countries. The vast majority of countries around the world still have much to do to redress the balance.

This was recognised by the recent UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) when a unanimous agreement ws reached to develop a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution. The agreement recognises the need to give governments the flexibility to identify binding and voluntary measures given there is no single approach to solving this global challenge.

Ultimately, the fate of recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, co-ordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.

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» Publication Date: 20/05/2022

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