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Conditions are in place for boosted plastic recycling activity in Europe, according to McKinsey & Co.
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Plastic recycling momentum surging in Europe

McKinsey & Co. sees no turning back from the scaling up of plastic recycling in Europe in the coming decade.

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August 25, 2020

Global consultancy McKinsey & Co., in an article prepared by its Chemicals group in August, says Europe is in the midst of “quiet before the storm” in terms of plastic recycling efforts that will ramp up this decade.

The article, co-authored by McKinsey employees working from four different European offices, concludes, “While some uncertainty remains around how to scale plastics recycling, the pressure to adapt to sustainability and ever-evolving customer expectations is here to stay.”

The result, add the authors, is “brand owners, recyclers, and players in chemicals each have a role to play. Those that respond quickly and decisively will drastically increase their chances of remaining competitive in the years to come.”

McKinsey’s researchers say they interviewed representatives from nearly 60 recycling companies located in 12 different nations. Along with the longer term optimism, the recyclers indicated that significant current challenges must be addressed first.

“Despite positive boundary conditions, plastics recycling is not (yet) thriving as an industry; and many recyclers struggle to overcome a lack of product standardization, volatile customer demand and inefficient sortation processes,” writes the consultancy.

However, conditions that will spur greater—and profitable—future activity are largely in place, both the recyclers interviewed and the consultants contend. Those conditions include European Union recycling targets and corporate sustainability recycling commitments.

“In 2017, the EU set a target for recycling 50 percent of plastic packaging by 2025 and 55 percent by 2030,” note the authors. “Brand owners across a variety of industries have also pledged to improve plastics usage and recycling through four main areas of focus, some committing to bold quantitative targets during this same period.” McKinsey points to such commitments by Unilever and Coca-Cola as examples.

Investments in mechanical recycling, and likely chemical recycling, will be necessary. Among several suggestions for meeting recycling targets from the interviewed recyclers and consultants alike is “investing in technologies such as AI [artificial intelligence] and higher quality washing systems [that] can incrementally improve sorting and the quality of recycled materials, making them more competitive with virgin plastics.”

The full seven-page article can be read or downloaded from this web page.