The lack of proper plastic recycling infrastructures and enforced schemes is a pertinent area that must be addressed
Plastic waste is a multi-faceted problem that requires the involvement and cooperation of many stakeholders, with corporations being one of the key players. In Part 1: Unraveling the Causes, I elaborated on some of the main causes of the plastic epidemic in Asia.
In this part, we will delve deeper into the unique challenges stakeholders face when trying to tackle the plastic problem, either through reducing, reusing or recycling.
The life cycle of plastics
First, let us do a quick run-through of the value chain of plastics. The infographic below is a very simplified depiction of the journey of plastic waste throughout its lifecycle.
Plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling fall short, says OECD.
The following problems outlined are some of the most challenging problems to be addressed in the plastic waste space.
The greatest problem when it comes to recycling plastics on a large scale is its cost. According to a McKinsey report, based on existing technologies and assuming there are no business model breakthroughs, recycling may only be profitable for about 50 per cent of plastic-waste volume today. Some factors that contribute to this challenge include the increased cost of production of recycled plastics and limited technological capabilities.
Firstly, the economics of producing recycled plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is not in the producer’s favour. There is an increased demand from corporations, especially Fast-Moving Consumer Good (FMCG) companies, to include recycled plastics in new products.
Thus, the price of recycled plastics has been pushed up, causing recycled plastics to become more expensive than virgin plastics for the first time in a few years. A report from S&P Global Platts, a commodity market specialist, reveals that recycled plastic in 2020 costs an extra US$72 (£57) a tonne compared to newly made plastic.
This was further exacerbated by the falling oil prices caused by the pandemic and an increase in petrochemical production from the US driven by the shale gas boom. With shale oil being a key raw material of virgin plastics, this decreases the cost of production of virgin plastics and dramatically increases the relative price of recycled plastics, forcing recyclers in Asia to slash prices by 21 per cent on average.
However, the effects of COVID-19 extend beyond the short term. The long-lasting impacts are evident in the sheer number of recycling companies forced to shut down in Asia due to the sharp decrease in demand for recycled plastics.
As seen in the following figure, not only are merely 58 per cent of recyclers in the listed Asian countries operating as of June 2020, but their average operating capacities are at a mere 46 per cent of their full installed capacity.
This paints a worrying picture of the plastic recycling scene. Should they permanently leave the industry, the total recycling capability would shrink even further, posing an even greater problem to the already limited recycling capacities in the region.
Single-stream recycling, which is common in many regions, is a system in which all waste materials, such as plastics, papers and metals, are mixed into a single collection truck. This is convenient for consumers yet often results in contamination, and materials must be sorted by both machine and human hand, making it more expensive.
The decreased efficiency and increased cost thus pose a great challenge to the company when it wants to scale up the system. Brands need millions of tons of recycled plastic for their products, and currently, very few recyclers can provide the same volume. Currently, very few companies can produce at this capacity.
Quality of recycled plastics
The quality of recycled plastics is another key area that needs to be addressed. Recycling plastics often leads to lower-quality materials, which diminishes their attractiveness. More than 10,000 different additives can be used to make plastics.
Plastics of the same type often contain different combinations of additives, resulting in recycled material with unpredictable and often suboptimal additive combinations. Plus, the long polymer chains that make up these materials become slightly shorter each time they are melted down.
This is especially crucial when we look at the plastic packaging used for food, which only allows for the highest grade of plastic to be used.
The limited recyclability of plastics compounds the problem, as many plastics can only be recycled two-three times before their properties degrade beyond usability. After undergoing multiple recycling cycles, the plastics eventually become environmentally unfriendly, and they would once again be subjected to the processes of incineration or be chucked into landfills.
Traceability of plastics
In 2020, Coca-Cola was named the top plastic polluter in the world three years in a row, with 13,834 of its discarded plastic bottles found lying on beaches, rivers and parks in 51 out of 55 countries that were surveyed.
This was in spite of its advertising claims that it was “investing in sustainable packaging platforms to reduce (their) carbon footprint”. And Coca-Cola is not the only one. The prominence of greenwashing in plastic recycling is alarming, and a large part of the problem lies in a lack of accountability.
“Tracing plastic resolves the anonymity of plastic waste,” Professor Barner-Kowollik of the Queensland University of Technology opined. That means that plastic waste could be traced back to the producer, paving the way for plastic producers to be held accountable for every inch of their waste via regulations.
Thus, there should be a method to assign a unique code to each plastic waste generated and monitor its journey through the plastic value chain, from production to disposal, pressurising corporations to deal with the waste themselves instead of expediting it to other companies or even countries. Traceability hence presents a unique opportunity that startups looking to enter the plastic waste ecosystem can explore.
Lack of proper plastic recycling schemes and policies
Finally, the lack of proper plastic recycling infrastructures and enforced schemes is a pertinent area that must be addressed.
With the lack of proper municipal waste management systems, many households and companies may not have easy access to ways to dispose of their waste. In turn, this means that plastic waste and waste, in general, will not be collected regularly, and the percentage of waste collected from the actual total waste generated will be lower.
Thus, recycling companies may face difficulties in obtaining consistent and high-quality feedstock, thus decreasing their abilities to reap economies of scale. As such, the companies may incur a higher cost of production when trying to recycle waste, and this would manifest in the form of higher prices for recycled plastics.
This exacerbates our very first argument on the costly nature of recycled plastics when compared to virgin plastics, further disincentivising more companies from entering the plastic recycling space.
Next, limited infrastructural development by governments also means that there are insufficient and inadequate waste disposal facilities. The lack of support and funding from the government would further disincentivise entrepreneurs to explore the plastic recycling space, leading existing corporates and startups to struggle when finding appropriate facilities or partners to handle larger volumes of plastic waste.
The best way to scale collaboration is through markets that have the right incentives in place. Thus, without the right financial or business incentives, the lack of structured support can pose a great setback to the growth of this industry. On a larger scale, this can even lead to the decreased capacity of plastic recycling in a country.
In part three, we will look at some of the possible solutions offered by startups, governments, and many more stakeholders to tackle the plastic problem.