27 mei 2020
Without government intervention, there will never be a circular economy for plastics. The coronavirus pandemic is leading to meager oil prices. As a result, virgin (primary) plastic is available at rock bottom prices. This new plastic, made from oil or gas, competes with recycled plastic, and the demand for recyclate has reached a new low. This has significant consequences for the viability of the recycling sector and for developing the desired closed cycle for plastics, from which no unused plastic is lost.
Crisis in plastic recycling
The supply of recyclate, a raw material for plastic made from waste plastic, is exceeding demand, processing costs are rising, the quality of the plastic collected for recycling is too poor, and above all: competition from virgin plastic is fierce.
The European plastics recycling sector fears for its survival, as is also the case in the United Kingdom. In the Netherlands, industry organization NRK Recycling sent a letter of appeal to State Secretary Van Veldhoven (political party D66) on 15 April 2020. The sector advocates, among other things, mandatory recycled content in plastic products and packaging. Without a stable market for recyclate, the ambitions of a circular economy for plastics in the Netherlands, as described in the Plastic Pact (full document in Dutch), cannot be realized.
Virgin plastic is dirt cheap
The price of virgin plastic was falling even before the coronavirus pandemic. One of the leading causes, according to NRK Recycling in its letter of appeal, is shale gas production in the USA and the associated extra capacity for the production of virgin plastics. The increased production of shale gas there has led to new crackers for the production of plastics. According to the letter, in January 2018, the amount of plastic shipped from America to Europe was close to zero. In the second half of 2019, this number increased to 40,000 tons per month. The price of virgin (primary) polyethylene, in particular, went down considerably because much more was produced than was needed.
For example, in America, Shell is investing billions of dollars in a new virgin plastic plant using cheap shale gas. Other oil multinationals are also embracing plastic production as compensation for their declining revenues from oil and gas.
Government intervention is essential
There are two straightforward measures that the government can take to ensure a stable market for recyclates. It can decide that plastic products must partly consist of recyclate, as NRK Recycling proposes. Companies promise to use at least 35% recycled plastic in all plastic packaging under the Plastic Pact by 2025. But they will never do that when virgin plastic is much cheaper (and often of better quality) unless there is an obligation to do so. The second measure would be to introduce a tax on virgin plastic.
Lobbying by oil companies is blocking legislation
Dennis Jorissen, owner of the Plastic Recycling Company in Schijndel in the Netherlands, can no longer get rid of the recyclate he produces. In an interview in Recycling Magazine, he explains that companies can choose between virgin plastic or recyclate and therefore choose the latter because virgin plastic is much cheaper. European legislation should be introduced to make the use of recycled plastic mandatory, for example, a certain percentage of recycled plastic in every plastic product. But he says that this is wishful thinking and does not take into account the lobbyists of oil companies and the petrochemical industry. ‘They are extremely powerful in Brussels and The Hague, and of course, they want to prevent this at all costs.’
Plastic Soup Foundation standpoint
Harmen Spek, manager of
innovation & solutions for the Plastic Soup Foundation: ‘We all create a
huge amount of waste plastic. High-quality recycling slows down the production
of new plastic. The government must now protect the recycling sector by making
the use of recyclate compulsory or introducing a tax on new plastic. Otherwise,
nothing will come of the closed cycle for plastics, and there will soon be no
recycling capacity left.’
The big question is what we should do with all our waste plastic. Exporting, incinerating, and dumping are not desirable options. The Plastic Soup Foundation has long been advocating for a significant reduction in single-use plastic products, ensuring much less waste and more manageable waste flows.
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