Food and drink industry plastics recycling ‘needs more support’

Virgin polymer prices have fallen, making recycling less competitive

The plastics packaging supply chain should not only commit to using food-grade recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) in its containers, as some brand-owners already do, but even be required to take a direct financial stake in collection and recycling infrastructure, according to one specialist in the area.

“Coca-Cola has been one of the few major brand-owners, along with PepsiCo, for example, to say ‘We’re going to commit to using rPET, no matter what’,” said Ed Kosior, md of recycling technology consultancy Nextek.

With the price of virgin polymers having dropped to historically low levels over recent years, taking several European recycling businesses down with it, many converters and brand owners have moved away from the more expensive recycled varieties.

Coca-Cola has invested in recycling in many markets, including the US and Europe. “It has sometimes backed the wrong horse, as with ECO Plastics in the UK,” said Kosior, referring to the Lincolnshire business that was placed in administration in late 2014.

“But they’re probably more committed than most, and continue to take recycled content.” Coca-Cola European Partners is understood to still be sourcing rPET from the same plant, now under new ownership.

‘Continue to take recycled content’

“We have to separate out the pricing of virgin PET and rPET,” Kosior argued. “They should be de-coupled, because they use completely different processes and have different cost structures.”

According to Nextek, virgin PET prices in Europe have recovered to some extent, but they may still be around 100 per tonne lower than for rPET, with processing factored in.

Kosior added: “The virgin resin companies, the retailers and brand-owners should be obliged to be part-owners of recycling companies. Supply-chain integration would mean that everyone would have a stake in their success.”

In a recent report on ocean plastics, Greenpeace collated figures from five of the six largest soft drinks manufacturers globally, and estimated that across these businesses an average of 6.6% of bottle PET was post-consumer recyclate.

Some have questioned the accuracy of the figure, which is in any case skewed since Coca-Cola chose not to provide its own data.

Questioned the accuracy

The brand owners involved were: PepsiCo, Nestlé, Suntory, Danone and Dr Pepper Snapple.

Where brand-owners such as Coca-Cola use rPET in their bottles, it tends to be at levels of around 25–30%, according to Nextek.

“With these proportions, you don’t have any impact on colour or on the physical properties,” said Kosior. “And in fact, at higher levels, it is usually colour that is the issue.

“There are some companies using 100% rPET for water bottles, but that presupposes a very clean rPET stream. Nestlé and Evian have been using 50% recycled content for water.”

Asked about the 6.6% average figure cited by Greenpeace, a spokeswoman for Nestlé said: “It is currently challenging to find sufficient quantities of rPET to meet our packaging needs.”

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