Does recycling ultimately hurt the Circular Economy?

Does recycling ultimately hurt the Circular Economy?
12 Sep 2019

Does recycling ultimately hurt the Circular Economy?

Thought leader article by David Drew, ex-CCO of PET plastic converter Alpla and PETCO board member.

The world of plastics has changed dramatically in just a few short years, with the industry facing mounting opposition to the use of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and other plastics.

As a director of the PET recycling company (PETCO), one of our greatest challenges is to add our voice to the global plastics conversation and share the economic and environmental value of recycling.

As the official body for the PET plastics industry in South Africa, we believe we have already made great progress.

Last year, the country delivered a 63% post-consumer PET plastic bottle collection rate, a massive leap from the 16% returned in 2005 – PETCO’s first year of operation.

But as much as we believe that this is something to be celebrated, there are others who still challenge advocates of recycling and question the negative side effects of an efficient recycling system.

In essence, their position is that by providing an effective system for most of the PET plastic bottles we produce, we are actually encouraging the growth of single-use plastic items and, because not all of the material will be recycled, could actually be increasing the negative impact on the environment.

This is clearly an extreme view, but do they have a point? Are our efforts and good intentions actually encouraging negative behaviour?

Currently, the “circular economy” is the environmental concept du jour and a guiding principle behind PETCO’s operations. Unlike the traditional “take, make, dispose” linear model of production, this model is a closed system, which relies on recycling, reuse, remanufacturing and refurbishment to minimise resource input and waste output.

In an ideal world, there would be no waste because re-use would trump recycling, and single use would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this is too far from current realities globally and cannot be the standard against which all positive efforts are measured.

Recycling remains a vitally important part of the circular economy because it will not always be possible to maintain, re-use and refurbish. In some applications, like food preservation, single-use plastic actually minimises the impact on the environment.

So where does that leave the PET industry and PETCO? I think the right answer has two parts.

Firstly, it is essential, both from an environmental and industry perspective, that we continue to support and drive recycling of PET and other plastics. If the plastics industry does not demonstrate the circular use of plastics then we can expect more measures like legislated bans.

Equally as concerning is the very real risk that, driven by public perception rather than science, brand owners and consumers will make choices to move out of plastic in all its forms. These choices may actually be less environmentally sound in the long run, but perceptions often trump science.

Ethically, the PET sector must take responsibility for the industry we have built and consumer behaviours we have enabled. We must create a way to take back the products we make once they’ve been used. This is why support for recycling is simply non-negotiable.

The second part of the answer is more challenging. I believe that life today is not possible without plastic, but there is still so much we can do as an industry and as individuals to improve the use of PET and plastic in general.

While we cannot ensure that all products will be recycled, we should not be making items that may not be recycled because of how they are constituted. We should be avoiding unnecessary use of plastic, even if it can be recycled. This can be done by streamlining packaging design or opting for an alternative with a less negative impact.
As an industry, we are at a crossroads. While there is no doubt that the plastic packaging sector will continue, it is up to us to shape what that future looks like. We must act responsibly and proactively to make the industry more circular by:
• designing and producing products that will be recycled,
• actively supporting the recycling of plastic into a variety of end uses,
• including recycled content in our products, and
• ensuring that we don’t use plastic unnecessarily and irresponsibly.

If we don’t, plastic will continue to be cast the villain and we will see its use contract until it is (inaccurately) perceived as the choice of brands that have little regard for their environmental impact.