hdpe plastic recycling
Recyclers gathered at the BIR World Recycling Convention said finding enough scrap to fill orders is increasingly problematic.
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BIR Convention: Trouble on the supply side for plastic

While grateful for booming demand, plastic recyclers are scrambling to fill orders.

Although plastics recyclers are enjoying the benefits of “massive demand and extremely high prices,” they are struggling to source sufficient feedstock to enable them to cope with this “undoubted boom time.”

That was the observation of Max Craipeau of Singapore-based Greencore Resources Ltd., who also chairs the Plastic Committee of the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR). The committee met in late May in Barcelona at the BIR World Recycling Convention.

Steve Wong of Hong Kong-based Fukutomi Recycling Ltd., who also is executive president of the China Sustainable Plastics Association, said there is an urgent need for more investment in the plastic scrap upstream collection, sorting, grinding and washing infrastructure. In the Far East, he maintained, “most factories operate at less than 20 percent of their capacities.”

Craipeau also identified hugely increased shipping costs as “really restricting the flow of material globally.” Whereas a 40-foot container heading from Asia to Europe or the United States two years ago would have cost around $2,500, the outlay was now nearer $15,000, he said.

Among the other pressures within the plastics recycling sector, he listed the impacts of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, high energy prices, inflation and lack of labor.

An initiative intended to enhance global flows of quality recycled plastics was outlined by guest speaker Doug Woodring, founder and managing director of the Ocean Recovery Alliance. The Rebound Plastic Exchange, for which he holds the title of lead expert, is scheduled to go live in late August.

Woodring says the platform will seek to serve as a transparent global trading platform aimed at facilitating movements of bales, pellets and flakes on the basis of “certification, verification and trust.”

In the past, ministries and governments have heard the negative publicity surrounding trade in used plastics and have not wanted to be “caught out on the wrong side of the story,” Craipeau said. By implementing standardized facility inspection protocols and using well-known, global certification bodies, the Exchange will attempt to build their confidence in global trade while at the same time driving the innovation and investment required to boost circularity and propel the current global plastics recycling rate beyond its estimated 10 percent rate.

Woodring also identified lack of feedstock as a consistent challenge and contended that investment of $56 billion is required in the plastics processing infrastructure over the next five years, rising to $400 billion by 2040.

“Many, many big brands now finally are trying to get more recycled content into their products,” Woodring said, naming Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Ikea, Procter & Gamble and Unilever as examples. However, this was proving to be “a giant challenge” because the necessary supply chains were not in place and “you cannot find the feedstock,” he said to convention delegates.

According to Woodring’s presentation, the market for recycled material is forecast to grow around 30 percent from 2020 levels to $45.6 billion by 2025. “This is a very great opportunity for those of you in the recycling industry,” he said. But until the necessary infrastructure investments have been made, the annual shortfall of recycled material would be a minimum of 6 million metric tons, he added.

Referring to the Rebound Plastic Exchange’s focus on achieving consistency in inspection and quality, Sally Houghton of The Plastic Recycling Corp. of California said, “We need standardization at the collection level as well.”

Natalia Cruz of Spain-based Ferromolins SL welcomed the Exchange initiative as “a very useful tool” for all of those businesses involved in the search for solutions to circular economy challenges.

The 2022 BIR World Recycling Convention was May 22-25 in Barcelona.