Global definition of plastics recyclability set to reduce recycling confusion

Global definition of plastics recyclability set to reduce recycling confusionA global definition of ‘plastics recyclability’ has been developed to eliminate confusion about what products can and cannot be recycled.

With public awareness of plastic pollution in the environment at an all-time high, governments across the world are increasingly making pledges to cut back on consumption of single-use plastic items like shopping bags, straws, cutlery and cotton buds. But there remains a lot of confusion about how and where to recycle many different plastic items, and consumers can be put off by the complexity of collection and recycling systems.

Two international organisations representing plastics recycling – Plastics Recycling Europe and the Association of Plastic Recyclers – have now come together to define what it means when we say plastic is ‘recyclable’.

The driving force behind the creation of this definition comes from the difference between what is ‘technically’ recyclable and what is ‘actually’ recyclable. The groups have pointed to the confusion which can arise when a product’s packaging claims it can be recycled but the local council, for instance, cannot accept it, perhaps because the processing technology is not readily available or because it is too costly for the council to do so.

“The term ‘recyclable’ is consistently used with packages and products without a defined reference point,” explained Steve Alexander, President and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. “At the end of the day, recyclability goes beyond just being technically recyclable. There must be consumer access to a recycling programme, a recycler must be able to process the material and there must be an end market.”

The problem can often occur in relation to single-use coffee cups, made from a combination of plastic and paper. The two materials individually are technically recyclable, but when combined, they can prove complex to process for many ordinary plastic or paper recyclers, needing specialised technology to separate the layers – which means that currently most councils do not accept coffee cups, although a growing number of retailers and businesses are starting to develop recycling schemes. All this adds to the confusion for well-meaning consumers who want to improve their environmental record.

Global definition of plastics recyclability set to reduce recycling confusion
The 'Mobius Loop' recycling symbol is often present on products but its varied meanings can contribute to confusion
This confusion is compounded by the fact that coffee cups often come with a ‘mobius loop’ symbol printed on them, three arrows in a triangle used to indicate that a product is capable of being recycled – not that it is recycled everywhere. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) stated in a March report into coffee cup waste that the ubiquity of this symbol means many consumers are unaware that the cups cannot be placed in mixed or paper recycling bins.

Both consumers and waste collection companies lose out as a result of this confusion, with residents frustrated when supposedly recyclable items are left behind on the kerbside, and councils struggling with high levels of contamination when materials are unwittingly placed in the wrong bins.

'Clear and universally endorsed definitions are needed'

This new definition, which is specific to products and packaging containing plastic, seeks to eliminate confusion with a ‘consistent metric’ covering the sorting, collection, processing and destination of these products.

For a product to be considered recyclable under this definition, it must meet four strict conditions:

  1. The product must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program;
  2. The product must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes;
  3. The product can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes; and
  4. The recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products.

‘Innovative’ materials – like biodegradable and compostable plastics – must also be demonstrably recyclable using existing processes, or else be available in sufficient quantities to justify developing new processes to recycle them.

Tom Emans, President of Plastics Recycling Europe, said: “Recently, we have seen many announcements regarding legislative measures on plastics products and pledges of the industry actors committing to making their products recyclable.

“As recyclers, we are a fundamental part of the solution to the issue of sustainability of plastics, and we need the appropriate audiences to understand what is necessary to label a product or package ‘recyclable’. We welcome these commitments and encourage others to follow. Nevertheless, clear and universally endorsed definitions and objectives are needed.”

The definition has been supported by Petcore Europe, which represents the European PET industry: manufacturers, collectors and recyclers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most commonly-recycled plastic material in the EU, used to make a vast range of products including clear drinks bottles.

It remains to be seen exactly how the definition will be adopted and what sort of timescale for its adoption can be expected. The types of plastic accepted for recycling differ widely in different locations due to market variations and the availability of technology, which may make translating such a universal definition worldwide very complex. The groups have acknowledged this difficulty, saying they ‘welcome comments from the plastics recycling industry and relevant stakeholders’.

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