Let's turn the plastics industry into the engine that drives the circular economy

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In contrast, plastic is a particularly easy material to shape. Its characteristic ‘plasticity’ has greatly contributed to its global success. Today, when the French national recovery plan has earmarked €500 million for the Ademe Circular Economy Fund, every part of the plastics industry would be well advised to reshape itself and embrace the principles of the circular economy. It may well be a major challenge, but it also presents a golden opportunity. This then is the perspective of a company manufacturing plastic packaging for industrial and commercial applications.

As is clear from the many ‘plastic bashing’ campaigns, plastic has become the symbol of the disposable society. While these environmental concerns are entirely valid, it’s certainly not the plastic itself that’s the problem, but rather the failure to manage the full life cycle of products made from it. So it’s important to make a clear distinction between complaints about the material and complaints about its use and management. In packaging, for example, the light weight of plastic mitigates the carbon impact of products by reducing the overall weight of goods transported, while its impermeability makes it possible to handle and transport hazardous materials in complete safety for people and the environment.

Turning the corner towards the circular economy

Curiously, the etymology of the word ‘plastic’ (from the Latin plasticus and the Greek plastikos) refers not to a specific material, but is defined as “that which is related to modelling”. No wonder the Greeks used the word as a synonym for sculpture. But in today’s world, environmental issues and regulatory pressures are now giving the plastics industry the opportunity to reinvent and reshape itself in order to leave behind an outdated linear business model in favour of embracing the principles of the circular economy. Transition also makes sound economic common sense: global production of plastics is rising continuously (359 million tonnes in 2018, compared with just 1.5 million in 1950), despite the fact that it depends on finite supplies of oil and gas; two energy sources that are non-renewable and long past their peak of production. So to sum up the position, an alternative business model is not only desirable, but also possible. The measures contained in the French national recovery plan to modernise waste management and the recycling of plastics, incorporate more recycled plastics in new products, and promote the reuse of single-use plastics, at the same time as reducing their production volumes, are all positive signals in this direction.

That said, the challenge is considerable, and time is short. France has set itself the ambitious target of recycling 100% of end-of-life plastics by 2025. According to Plastics Europe, this figure was just 26.2% in 2018. This commitment echoes the very likely introduction – also in 2025 – of new EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) legislation covering non-consumer packaging. And then there’s the draft European plastic tax legislation introduced on 1 January this year, which is intended to penalise non-recycled plastic packaging waste. As a result of all these measures, industry stakeholders must act quickly to consolidate the sector. Eco-organisations, eco-design rules and, more generally, all plastics recycling channels will all be upscaling, and every link in the value chain must be involved in redesigning its business models in ways that positively support and proactively facilitate this transformation.

The plastics industry has no lack of resources

As a manufacturer of plastic packaging for industrial and retail customers, we have a significant role to play in transforming our industry into the leading force in recycling and the circular economy by taking action as early as the product design stage. It is at the very beginning of their lives that the fate of packaging products is decided in terms of the type of plastic used, its recyclability, its lifespan, the ease or otherwise of maintenance, and many other factors. At Agriplas, this fact has encouraged us to completely change the way we produce some of our flagship products by combining eco-design with economy of functionality. We are currently developing a MultiWay IBC that can be completely dismantled for easier maintenance and end-of-life recycling of every single component as part of creating the circular economy. Highly resistant to corrosion and lighter in weight as a result of using the blow moulding process (a 25% weight saving compared with the heavy IBCs on the market today), and equipped with fully replaceable components, we have designed this IBC to extend the lifespan of the entire product family from an average of 4 years to 5 years. In other words, although the production of plastic packaging remains our core business, the maintenance of these products has become a key issue for us and our customers. The actions we are now taking enable us to extend the life of packaging, at the same time as reducing our carbon footprint as we explore new business models; in this case, transitioning from selling a product to selling a service.

Let’s eco-organise

If we are to act ahead of the new regulatory obligations due to be introduced in 2025, we need to act now on setting up the eco-organisations that will put in place the recycling channels needed for industrial and commercial packaging. It is clear that a permanent an ongoing process of dialogue with these organisations is an essential part of working together to build the industry sectors of tomorrow. At Agriplas, we’re also consulting on the introduction of closed loop recycling solutions. These would allow us to maintain control of the end-of-life plastic material we recover from our customers’ customers, so that we can extract maximum benefit from it, and ensure that it does not end up in sorting facilities and become degraded as a result of being mixed with other materials.

This is very much the direction of travel: packaging manufacturers will be required to incorporate as many recycled raw materials as possible into their products. So the more efficient we can make these recycling loops, the closer we will get towards a production system fed entirely by recycled materials. That said, a number of technological, regulatory and financial issues raise questions around the resources that need to be implemented to succeed in such a challenge. The plastics industry has set itself the ambition of becoming the driving force behind recycling and the circular economy in France. But does it have the resources to do so? As a manufacturer of HDPE-based industrial packaging, we see three key priorities.

The first of these involves putting more effort into innovative solutions that improve the recycling of plastics. In this context, we believe the emphasis should be on research into gaining better control over the effect of chemical migration from packaging to contents, and vice-versa. It would also be important to support upscaling the mechanical recycling process required for between 30% and 40% of the plastics used to make packaging. In practical terms, greater technological efficiency would result in a better grade of output pellet and shorten the loop required to reuse the material. It is though essential to explore other alternatives at the same time, one being the potential benefits of chemical recycling, and the other being bioplastics.

Then there’s the determination to ensure the ability of recycled raw materials to compete effectively in the marketplace, and the efficiency of recycling channels. The first essential step is to decouple the recycled raw material prices from the oil price. As things stand today, the price of new oil-based raw material is lower than that of recycled raw material, which limits the growth and profitability of the recycling industries. The second priority is to make recycling channels more transparent and more efficient. Since exports of plastic waste to China ceased in 2017, the industry has had to work hard on gaining better control of central storage facilities and boosting processing capacities.

The third and final priority is to remove all the administrative and regulatory obstacles that currently impede manufacturers and recyclers. The industry would very much welcome a relaxation of the obligation to test packaging containing recycled raw materials and batches of recycled raw materials, given that the quality of the latter is much more consistent than was the case just a few years ago. Similarly, a change in regulations to enable the approval of recycled packaging for the transport of hazardous goods would open the door to solutions other than the new plastic containers that currently dominate this market.

A virtuous circle

Making the transition from a linear economy to a circular economy involves every stakeholder in the value chain, from plastics and packaging manufacturers, their customers and public authorities to end-user consumers. If it is to achieve this Copernican revolution and become a major force in the ongoing transformation, our industry must reinvent itself. Everyone at every level will have to make adjustments and redesign their business, production lines and/or purchasing criteria. Hence the importance of talking to each other and including as many stakeholders as possible in the loop to coordinate our efforts and ensure that the transition of the plastics industry to the principles of the circular economy leads us all into a virtuous circle.