New global definition announced for recyclability of plastics

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Photo by PRE

A pair of plastic recycling trade groups representing both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are coming together try to create a global definition of a common word.

Both the Association of Plastic Recyclers (ARP) and Plastics Recycling Europe (PRE) recognise a disconnect between using the word "recyclable" and whether an item actually is recycled.

"What we're trying to do here is put a stake in the ground. Here are two of the major plastics recycling organizations ... that this is what they say recyclable is," said US-based APR President Steve Alexander.

"As more and more people put out these sustainability goals and metrics by 2025, 2030, 2040, what does it mean? We're trying to say for the recycling organizations, this is what recyclability means. Ultimately what you want to do is go from recyclable to recycled," he said.

So the groups have established four criteria to help determine if plastics should be considered recyclable. They are:

• The product must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program.

• The product must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes.

• The product can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes.

• The recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products.

Work on the issue comes at a time when the two plastics recycling groups are making strides to work more closely together on common issues. They also have been talking with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is helping drive plastics recycling discussion through its New Plastics Economy program, aimed at creating a circular economy for the material.

An important element to the definition for APR is that it includes language that addresses demand for the material.

"If there is no end market, what are you doing? You are just producing something nobody wants, which is essentially trash. The demand component is key," Alexander said.

The definition also addresses regulatory requirements, which are more prevalent in Europe than North America, he said.

Photo by Association of Plastic Recyclers Alexander

Ton Emans, president of PRE, said in a news release: "Recently, we have seen many announcements regarding legislative measures on plastic products and pledges of the industry actors committing to making their products more recyclable.

"As recyclers, we are a fundamental part of the solution to the issue of sustainability of plastics, and we need for the appropriate audiences to understand what is necessary to label a product or package 'recyclable.'"

Alexander said the widespread use of the term "recyclable" can lead to confusion.

"I do think, generally speaking, the term has become more of a marketing term in certain instances," he said. "There are people who will say, 'It's made of plastic, so it's recyclable.'"

But that's not necessarily true. Barrier layers and the inclusion of metal in dispensers, for example, can render a container unrecyclable.

"Clear and universally endorsed definitions and objectives are needed," Emans said.

APR and PRE indicated they continue to seek input from the plastics recycling industry and other stakeholders about the issue.

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