‘Uncertainty’ in Europe’s plastics recycling industry, says BIR

A ‘feeling of uncertainty’ is permeating the European plastics recycling industry owing to the impact of Covid-19 on the market, according to the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), with a mixed picture emerging for other recycling industries.

An image of a recycling plastics conveyor belt

In a Covid-19 update on the state of international recycling markets released yesterday (12 May), the BIR stated that the oil price slump is keeping prices low and ‘huge stocks are overhanging the market’, contributing to unease compounded by the fact that ‘European plastics recyclers obviously have little idea themselves how supply… will develop in the coming weeks’.

Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE) revealed that many plastics recyclers were closing down due to the severe market situation, with Tom Emans, PRE President stating: "f the situation is to persist and no actions are taken to remedy the sector, plastics recycling will cease to be profitable, hampering the attainment of the EU recycling targets and putting in jeopardy the transition towards circular plastics. In such a case, recyclable plastic waste will have no alternatives but to be sent to landfill or incineration."

Lockdown restrictions have resulted in difficulties securing a supply of recyclables, yet with the easing of lockdown restrictions over the last week, the update highlighted some ‘glimmers of hope’.

Certain companies are restarting, especially the car industry which is a major consumer of recycled raw materials; the UK’s engineering and automotive sectors are set to return over the coming days after Prime Minister Boris Johnon's statement detailing how lockdown restrictions will be eased on Sunday (10 May).

Highlighting the disruption to the steady stream of supplies of secondary raw materials to downstream manufacturing industries, the BIR drew attention to France where 77 per cent of paper recycling plants are now open. Out of 18,000 employees, 10.5 per cent are operating from home, 25 per cent are working part-time and seven per cent are not working.

More widely, recycling collections in France are down by: 20 per cent for paper and cardboard, 24 per cent for plastics, 48 per cent for wood and 75 per cent for metals. Accordingly, the total turnover for these materials was down year on year by 39 per cent in March and by 64 per cent in April.

The textiles recycling sector is showing green shoots of recovery as markets in eastern Europe are beginning to reopen, while some graders will be restarting in the coming days at reduced volumes. Meanwhile, collections of textiles in western Europe are increasing but remain low.

The international view

The picture looks more positive in east Asia, with the update suggesting that with Covid-19 cases in China declining sharply over the past month and no new cases having been reported in Taiwan for two weeks, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are ‘slowly returning to normal’. Volumes of non-ferrous metal purchase have increased by 20-30 per cent compared to the previous week. 

Elsewhere, the ferrous scrap sector is seeing a steady recovery, with businesses returning to work, though banking issues in India are slowing the recovery due to delays in getting Letters of Credit opened.

Aside from the impact of Covid-19, the report highlights that the buying mood in China is being affected by the reclassification of recycled material in the country which will come into effect for brass, copper and cast aluminium alloys on 1 July.

However, further disruption is expected to the international recycling market at the end of the year as China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee voted to revise China’s waste laws to work towards ‘zero imports of solid waste’, going further than current restrictions implemented at the start of 2018.

You can view BIR Covid-19 updates on its website