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How we can make recycled plastic economically profitable

Plastic bottles accumulating for recycling

The end of the year is always a time for reflection. What did corona learn us about plastic? Due to the low oil price, recycled plastic became even more unprofitable than it already was. Should we forget about plastic recycling or is it a chance for innovation?

Plastic waste accumulates at recycling companies

Due to the historically low oil price, new ‘virgin’ plastic became even cheaper than it already was. This has made recycled plastic less attractive for buyers. The demand for recycled plastic already declined before the corona crisis, but the stagnating industry during the lockdown has reinforced this trend. In June, the news channel NOS reported that the plastic accumulates at recycling stations. Thousands of bags of shredded plastic waste are waiting to be recycled, but no one picks them up.

Recycling plastic lacks economic benefits

Europe wants to move towards a circular economy and that means we have to use more recycled plastic. That requires buyers and they are hard to find at the moment. The corona crisis actually exposes a problem that has been going on for some time. There is not enough economic benefit for companies to recycle when ‘virgin’ plastic is so dirt cheap. The positive thing about this crisis is that it creates more urgency for the recycling problem. 

Only 15 percent of plastic waste is recycled

The recycling problem has been around for a long time. In the Netherlands only 15 percent of plastic waste is recycled and processed into products. Where does all that other plastic go? It is dumped or burned. One of the reasons we do not recycle more plastic is because the quality of the collected plastic is very poor. This is because plastic a very complex material. It consists of different types of plastics which cannot be recycled together. Good sorting of plastic waste from our households is essential in order to achieve better recycling.

Recycling of plastic is challenging

Improving recycling is not that easy. Currently, municipalities do not succeed in good sorting of plastic. Researchers are afraid the current collection method of plastics even increases environmental pollution. This is because municipalities reward citizens for handing in as little residual waste as possible, so some people throw away their plastics in the organic waste bin. The Centraal Plan Bureau says that municipalities should no longer be encouraged to collect as many plastics as possible, but to primarily collect good-quality plastic that can be recycled better. Also, they should take measures to prevent the use of plastics by producers, for example through stricter rules.

Crisis asks for a new perspective on recycled plastic

The crisis has drawn more attention to what is wrong with our plastic industry. When new plastic is so cheap and recycled plastic is difficult and expensive, we will never solve the plastic waste problem. We need to start thinking differently. Recycled plastic is a valuable raw material that we can use to make new products. We can do much more with it than recycling plastic bottles or other disposable materials that have a short lifespan. There are already a lot of companies that use recycled plastic in an innovative way in new product design. From design for the interior and public space to architectural elements for buildings such as floors, wall panels and stairs

Innovative solutions for the plastic recycling industry

The challenge for recycled plastic lies in the production process. To make new products from recycled plastic you need high quality plastic and currently we fail to keep the quality high. We need to rethink our plastic collection system, but also our plastic product design. In addition, more solutions are needed to close the recycling cycle. We can recycle plastic and make products out of them, but in t he end most of them end up on the waste mountain. This is because a second recycling round leads to a loss of quality. Tests have already shown that we can improve the quality, just not yet on a large scale.

More attention for plastic recycling

So there is still a lot to be gained. Through innovations in the production process and collection process, we can ensure that recycled plastic becomes economically attractive to use. The government can use regulations and investments to make the use of recycled plastic more attractive for companies and to support innovation in the recycling production and collection process. For example, by getting designers, researchers and companies to collaborate more so that they can come up with new innovations for recycled plastic.

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