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Recyclates market not running smoothly

Roechling Foundation: Treasure Hunt

New POLYPROBLEM report "Treasure Hunt" shows how the plastics cycle can be reformed

New POLYPROBLEM report "Treasure Hunt" shows how the plastics cycle can be reformed

Berlin, 10 December 2020 |The market for recycled plastics is broken – this is the central finding of the latest POLYPROBLEM topic report. “Treasure Hunt” is the second POLYRPOBLEM topic report of this year. This time, the report was conducted in cooperation with cirplus. Its goal is to not only summarize the situation regarding the recycling of plastics but also to analyze the reasons that currently cause the plastics cycle to fail and to provide possible solutions for politics and industry.

"Annually, nearly 400 million tons of plastic are currently produced worldwide. However, less than ten percent consist of recycled material. Hence, it is still a long way to a properly functioning recycling industry," says Uwe Amrhein, Foundation Manager at the Röchling Foundation. "We asked ourselves: why don't industry and politics manage to increase the use of plastic recyclates in products? Why do supply and demand apparently not come together?" Answers are provided in the new POLYPROBLEM report, titled: "Treasure Hunt: Faults and flaws of the recycling industry ... and a glimpse into a possible future."

Recycled plastic: still too expensive, still too hard to come by

One of numerous problems with recycled plastic is the price. This is also the view of Christian Schiller, founder & CEO of cirplus, a digital marketplace for plastic recyclates, and cooperation partner of the new POLYPROBLEM report. "Every year, 15 million tons of waste end up in the world's oceans - from a recyclable material that has generated billions in added value in its manufacture. This shows that plastic is obviously not valuable enough at the end of its first use cycle to be reused," explains Christian Schiller, a member of the editorial team for the report and one of a total of eight experts from industry and science who contribute guest articles to the report.

The fact that newly produced plastic is between 20 and 30 percent cheaper to buy than a recyclate of comparable quality is a surprise to many consumers, but despite the great social debate about the plastics problem, it is still a reality. The reason? "Roughly speaking, the industrial production of virgin material has about a 40-year head start over plastic recycling," adds Christian Schiller. "When board members nevertheless express the will to improve the circularity of their plastic products, their chief buyers are astonished to discover: although people are willing to pay 20 to 30 percent more for recyclates, there is often simply a lack of quantities and qualities to meet the demand of even a medium-sized brand-name manufacturer."

Industry must contribute to innovation costs

While recyclers complain about the price disadvantage of recyclates compared to virgin materials and the lack of economies of scale, the user industry is calling for an innovation push to increase the quality and quantity of high-quality plastic recyclates. Gabriele Hässig, managing director of communications and sustainability at Procter & Gamble, is amongst those who state this in the new POLYPROBLEM report. If new technical processes were used to improve the sortability of collected plastic waste and thus significantly increase the amount that can be recycled, there would also be positive economies of scale for recycling companies. This could at least partially offset the cost disadvantage of recyclates compared to virgin material.

In order to finance such a surge in innovation, future levies on the use of virgin material would have to be specifically directed toward improving recycling systems and building a transparent market, the authors of the study recommend.

Another key to a significantly higher share of recyclates in plastics production would be improved standards and norms that provide processors and producers with reliable information on material properties. Prof. Dr.-Ing. Hans Josef Endres and Dr. Madina Shamsuyeva of Leibniz Universität Hannover point this out in the POLYPROBLEM report.

"The goal is clear after all: a functioning recycling system with a fair and transparent market for recyclable materials. What is controversial, however, is how to get there. In the report, we let different market players and perspectives have their say and show what solutions might look like," summarizes Michael Alberg-Seberich, Managing Director of Wider Sense, the second partner of POLYPROBLEM. "We are already taking a visionary look at the future of the circular society, so that old plastic will be seen in the future for what it is - a valuable thing that you don't throw away," adds foundation manager Uwe Amrhein.

Download or order report free of charge

The new POLYPROBLEM report is now available for download at polyproblem.org as well as at roechling-stiftung.de and widersense.org. Additional printed copies can be ordered free of charge by sending a short message to info(at)roechling-stiftung.de, and we would be happy to send you a larger number of copies.

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