Recycling is having a profound impact on the plastics industry, affecting both our business model and operations. Everything from increasing legislation to the growth of chemical recycling is changing the way we create plastics and do business.
In the latest episode of the M. Holland Plastics Reflections Series, our host and moderator, Dwight Morgan, Executive Vice President of Corporate Development at M. Holland Company, spoke with an expert group of panelists, including Andrew Reynolds, Director at Business Publishing International (BPI); Penny Walter, Senior Category Manager, Strategic Procurement at Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Sales and Services; Brad Rodgers, Vice President of Technology at Danimer Scientific; and Debbie Prenatt, Market Manager, Sustainability at M. Holland Company. They discussed obstacles to adopting a more circular economy and large-scale recycling programs and addressed how plastics companies can advance sustainability in the industry.
Drawing on his 40 years in the plastics industry, Andrew Reynolds kicked off the discussion with an overview of sustainability trends. He anticipates growing sociopolitical movements and calls for legislation will affect plastics significantly. The industry must also contend with consumers increasingly prioritizing sustainability over convenience, along with negative optics and misinformation around plastics. “The consumer is making very real choices and is interrogating the materials they end up using,” Reynolds said.
Beyond consumer behavior and public perception, companies must also consider the timeline for peak virgin plastic when developing sustainability plans. Reynolds estimates that peak virgin plastic will occur around 2025. “I cannot imagine a company in the plastics industry that doesn’t have to consider this,” he said. “I think it will change the whole value chain.” And, while reaching peak virgin plastic doesn’t mean plastics are going away or will be used less, “it’s just going to come from different sources,” Reynolds explained. However, one result will certainly be a growing emphasis on plastics recycling.
Currently, China and Europe account for almost 70% of polymer recycling. But rates are much lower in North America, where recycling systems are less developed. As mechanical and chemical recycling become more common, and as pressure grows on governments and businesses to prioritize sustainability, rates of polymer recycling will grow from 44 million tons in 2020 to an estimated 64 million tons by 2025. Reynolds predicts that corporations will feel the sustainability pressure more in North America than in Europe or Asia, where the focus is more on environmental legislation. Despite shifts in regulation and the potential for greater taxes on plastics, Reynolds thinks the outlook for the industry is positive overall.
As recycling progresses in all markets, prime resin and biopolymers will also grow. “But we have to be cognizant of the fact that the recycled proportion of the market will be growing,” Reynolds emphasized. “Plastic is just too valuable to throw away.” He also noted that plastics companies are well-positioned to adjust to a more circular economy thanks to the industry’s historical focus on resource efficiency. The panel didn’t need much time to come up with examples of how companies are adapting and making room in their businesses to usher in a circular plastics economy.
Debbie Prenatt shared some of the ways M. Holland is incorporating sustainability across the business. For example, the M. Holland team is currently developing a polymer portfolio, including compostable biopolymers made from renewable resources, polymers made from recycled content, and specialty additives that help downgauge products and make recycled polymers more processable.
Penny Walter talked about the many innovative sustainability initiatives at Coca-Cola, including the use of recycled PET across the company’s soft drinks and water portfolios and the World Without Waste program promoting sustainability through design, recyclables collection and education.
At Danimer Scientific, “both our challenge and mission is to develop biopolymers for a wide range of applications,” Brad Rodgers said. One, for example, is polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) is produced by microbes and biodegrades naturally under a wide range of conditions. Rodgers said the company is also trying to design materials to fit into existing plastic processing equipment and applications as seamlessly as possible.
And, while these are all examples of the plastic industry’s sustainability potential, we still face significant obstacles, including a radical rethinking of the way we do business.
According to Reynolds, cooperation is key. This approach would be a change from the independent nature of most companies. Walter agreed, pointing out the costs in terms of time and effort that Coca-Cola incurs in its quest to be a sustainability leader. She explained how more players working together would drive innovation while also lowering expenses.
Rodgers suggested the industry take a cue from the sports industry, which has set up zero-waste initiatives in major stadiums to divert recyclable and compostable materials from landfills. This move helps municipalities reduce economic and environmental costs associated with landfills. “This is a great example of what can be done if we put our minds to it…and economics will support that if done right,” Rodgers said.
Developing more standardization and advancing infrastructure for recycling collection and processes is also crucial, along with educating consumers. Prenatt noted the demand for post-consumer recycled content resins and the disconnect between what actually gets recycled and what is valuable to the processor. Contamination due to consumers incorrectly sorting recyclables is another costly problem, although the technology for polymer sorting automation is quickly evolving.
The panel also discussed whether legislation is the answer to subsidizing and funding sustainability efforts. Reynolds pointed out that greater regulation and subsidies would reduce the economic problems that arise when the cost of polymers declines and recycling is less profitable. He also highlighted the geopolitical aspect of sustainability initiatives and their importance to the continuing stature and influence of the U.S. Plastics has a unique position to help advance the country’s environmental footprint, but it requires a holistic effort across the industry.
While the economics of recycling and increasing consumer awareness about sustainability and plastics are major issues, the future for plastics and sustainability looks promising. New and evolving recycling technologies and innovative polymers will help support the industry as it pivots from virgin plastics. There is certainly a lot of work to be done, but this panel discussion highlighted some of the industry’s accomplishments, serving as a reminder of the expertise, drive and ingenuity within the plastics community.