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Why pledges alone will not get plastics recycled: Comparing recyclate production and anticipated demand


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Scientific analysis and media coverage of rampant plastic pollution has taken a toll on the material's reputation in recent years, fueling talk of a “plastic crisis”. Brand owners have made ambitious pledges to overcome this crisis—but can voluntary commitments turn the tide? In this paper, we analyze the current flow of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) from production to recycling in the European Union (EU). We show that the pledged volume for recycled PET (rPET) to be used in the EU in 2025 amounts to 2.066 m tons, requiring the annual recycling growth rate to double in the next years compared to 2014–2018. Our results indicate that even widespread adoption of deposit return systems for bottles will not suffice, especially when increasing demand from other industries drives the price above the packaging producers’ willingness to pay. To realize the pledges, substantial investments and a regulatory framework for the targeted and sensible use of PET recyclate are necessary.
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Why pledges alone will not get plastics recycled: Comparing recyclate
production and anticipated demand
Sebastian Kahlert
, Catharina R. Bening
Group for Sustainability and Technology, ETH Zurich, Weinbergstrasse 56-58, CH-8092 Zurich, Switzerland
Plastics recycling
Circular economy
Polyethylene terephthalate
Circular plastics alliance
Recycled content targets
Scientic analysis and media coverage of rampant plastic pollution has taken a toll on the materials reputation
in recent years, fueling talk of a plastic crisis. Brand owners have made ambitious pledges to overcome this
crisisbut can voluntary commitments turn the tide? In this paper, we analyze the current ow of polyethylene
terephthalate (PET) from production to recycling in the European Union (EU). We show that the pledged volume
for recycled PET (rPET) to be used in the EU in 2025 amounts to 2.066 m tons, requiring the annual recycling
growth rate to double in the next years compared to 20142018. Our results indicate that even widespread
adoption of deposit return systems for bottles will not sufce, especially when increasing demand from other
industries drives the price above the packaging producerswillingness to pay. To realize the pledges, substantial
investments and a regulatory framework for the targeted and sensible use of PET recyclate are necessary.
1. Introduction
Plastic is a versatile material, but environmental concerns with re-
gard to its resource consumption, toxicity, and environmental pollution
abound. Only 9% of the ~8.3bn metric tons produced since the 1950s
has been recycled, and 12% incinerated, with the vast majority going to
(often unmanaged) landlls (Geyer et al., 2017). Public attention has
been drawn to the downsides of global plastic consumption (Green-
peace, 2018), and respective policies such as the EUs single-use plastics
directive are being enacted at unprecedented speed (Masterson, 2020,
Xanthos and Walker, 2017). Nevertheless, the worlds plastic production
is growing, standing at 359 m tons in 2018 (PlasticsEurope, 2019). This
could lead to plastics share of total oil consumption rising from 6%
today to 20% by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation et al., 2016), and a
corresponding increase of lifecycle emissions to 6.5 GtCO
e (Zheng and
Suh, 2019), which translates into 30% of the carbon budget in a 1.5C
scenario (Rogelj, J., D. Shindell, K. Jiang, S. Fita, P. Forster, V. Ginz-
burg, C. Handa, H. Kheshgi, S. Kobayashi, Kriegler, E. et al., 2018) (see
Supplementary Material 1). Hence, plastic production and its end-of-life
management play a vital role with regard to climate change mitigation.
Brand ownersbeing the public face of plastic packaginghave
pledged to reduce their consumption of virgin material and use more
recycled content. In light of this development, two major voluntary
pledging campaigns began in 2018: 1) the Circular Plastics Alliance
(CPA) (European Commission, 2019) of the European Commission, and
2) the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment (Ellen MacArthur
Foundation, 2019a), overseen by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
(EMF) and the UN Environment Programme.
Yet, there is reason to be cautious, as previous pledges in this eld
have not been fullled: In 1990, Coca-Cola pledged to use 25% recycled
plastic for its bottles by 2015, but in 2020, only 11.5% had been realized
(Delemare et al., 2020, The Coca-Cola Company, 2021). PepsiCo and
e have failed similarly, exhibiting the limited effectiveness of
pledges alone. To date, there has been no holistic investigation of global
brand owners pledges and their prospects for fulllment. While both,
researchers (Lase et al., 2021) and industry analysts (Victory, 2019)
expect targets to be missed, it is unclear how big a gap might be, which
steps in the value chain it originates from and which measures could
help to close it.
In this paper, we analyze the current ow of PET in the EU (incl. the
United Kingdom) from production to recycling and compare it to the
pledged consumption of its recyclate through the CPA four years from
now. We focused on PET for two reasons: First, it is one of the most
widely used materials in food packaging, which is the key area for many
pledges and regulatory targets (Welle, 2016). It makes up 21% of all
plastic packaging demand in Europe (Eunomia, 2020, PlasticsEurope,
2019), mostly in the form of bottles or trays. However, due to its brief
usage, it is also among the most littered types of plastic
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: (S. Kahlert).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
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Received 14 December 2021; Received in revised form 8 February 2022; Accepted 5 March 2022
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 181 (2022) 106279
(Morales-Caselles et al., 2021, Greenpeace, 2018). Second, in alignment
with EFSA regulation, PET is the only polymer that can be recycled in a
closed-loop mannermeaning that a product, e.g., a bottle, is recycled
and its recyclate is used in a bottle again (i.e., bottle-to-bottle
recycling)and is available in market quantities, due to high collec-
tion rates driven by DRS and the availability of large sorting and recy-
cling capacities.
We nd a signicant gap to achieving the pledges, discuss current
developments, and formulate two potential scenarios that might
signicantly inuence the achievement of the pledges. Lastly, we discuss
additional measures required to enable the achievement of the pledges.
2. Material and methods
Our method rests on two pillars: 1) production, consumption, and
recycling data for PET in Europe, as well as 2) the pledged volumes from
brand owners. Comparing the recyclate output with the pledged vol-
umes allowed us to calculate the gap to fulllment. Additionally, the
deposit return system (DRS) scenarios required an in-depth analysis of
bottle production and collection volumes for the EU member states, as
well as research on the state of discussion on implementing a DRS
scheme. For the rising recyclate price scenario, we studied company and
industry reports to identify the main markets of PET outside packaging
and their commitments towards recycled material usage.
2.1. Production, consumption, and recycling data for PET in Europe
We have calculated the pledged rPET volumes for the EU since it has
one of the highest consumption rates of plastic packaging worldwide.
For this reason, it has developed the most advanced regulatory frame-
work and infrastructure for polymer recycling. This provided us with
comparatively good data availability, as well as a dedicated pledging
scheme, allowing for a comprehensive analysis.
To obtain the production, consumption, and recycling data, we used
sources from the European statistical ofce (i.e., Eurostat) as well as
from industry reports (Eunomia, Plastics Europe, Petcore Europe)
following the basic idea of a material ow analysis (MFA) (Brunner and
Rechberger, 2017). MFA are broadly used (Ellen MacArthur Founda-
tion, 2017, Joosten et al., 2000, Mutha et al., 2006, Patel et al., 1998)
and allow us to systematically assess the ow of materials. While most
studies in Europe have focused on several (Eriksen et al., 2020) or all
common polymers (Hsu et al., 2021, Kawecki et al., 2018),
polymer-specic MFAs are rare. For PET, MFAs were conducted in the
United States (Kuczenski and Geyer, 2010), Colombia (Rochat et al.,
2013) and China (Chu et al., 2021) as well as for the import of PET bottle
waste to China (Ma et al., 2020). As of today, MFA has not been com-
bined with pledging campaigns to analyze their fulllment.
We proceeded in 3 steps: 1) extraction of production and consump-
tion data from Eurostat, 2) integration of collection, sorting, and recy-
cling data from Eunomia and 3) cross-checking data with other sources
and experts.
First, we extracted the production and consumption data from
Eurostat which includes all the EU28 countries (incl. the UK), as well as
their imports and exports. Eurostat data comes from the countries
ofcial statistical bodies and is generally highly reliable. However, there
have been concerns that plastic data can be weak, especially for waste
collection and treatment. Data is often condential and not available on
a per-country basis, reducing traceability and comparability. Further-
more, rPET production is not reported separately in Eurostat data, which
is why we assumed all rPET produced in 2018 was used in the produc-
tion of goods in the same year. The launch of PolyREC, a European
monitoring and reporting agency, could overcome this issuebut it is
not independent, being backed by Petcore, Plastic Recyclers Europe, and
VinylPlus. Thereforeand secondwe obtained the collection, sorting,
and recycling data from the PET Market State of Play report from
Eunomia (2020), which is based on the EU28 (incl. the UK). The report
draws from a survey among PET recyclers with a response rate of 69% of
installed capacity, using estimates to account for missing responses.
Third, we conducted cross-checks by comparing the data to Eurostat,
Plastics Europe, Plastics Recyclers Europe, and ICIS data and validating
it with industry experts. Furthermore, for the recycling capacity and
recyclate production data, we conducted several plausibility checks with
our own recycler database (consisting of web-scraped and surveyed
entries for plastic recyclers worldwide) as well as with the certication
agency EuCertPlast. The full list of data sources per line item can be
found in Supplementary Table 1.
2.2. Compiling the 2018 gap to the pledges
The pledges have been consolidated in two major voluntary pledging
campaigns launched by European Commission (2018) and the Ellen
MacArthur Foundation (2019b) respectively (see Table 1).
We have compiled the pledges on polymer level per company by
analyzing both the EMF and CPA databases in full detail. We have also
evaluated company reports and industry growth rates to ensure the
accuracy of the stated volumes and to estimate the pledges if volumes
have not been disclosed in the reports.
For PET, apart from several smaller and medium-sized pledges,
Petcore Europe has summarized its members pledges for the CPA as a
total of 2.066 m tons for 2025. Those include the listed amounts of 875k
tons for bottles and 706k tons for sheets, as well as 300k tons for bers,
123k tons for strapping, and 61.5k tons for other applications (Cr´
2019). After cross-checking the data with the individual pledges of
member companies and the Commissions Directorate-General for In-
ternal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship, and SMEs, we use this data
and the provided split across end markets as the main source for the
pledges gap calculation. Given the EU as an ofcial source, the trans-
parency with which data is disclosed, and the accordance with our
cross-checks, we used the CPA pledge for all our calculations.
2.3. Calculating the DRS scenario
For the DRS scenario, we integrated a database from Global Data
(Global Data, 2018) with volumes of plastic beverage bottle consump-
tion per country in 2018 into our model. The reported volumes for 2018
Table 1
Voluntary pledging campaigns.
Program Circular plastics alliance (CPA) New plastics economy global
commitment (EMF)
Initiator European Commission Ellen MacArthur Foundation
and the UN Environment
Inauguration December 2018 October 2018
Participants 70 European companies along
the value chain have submitted
their pledges, including major
organizations such as Petcore
Europe, Vinylplus, and
European Plastics Converters
Over 500 businesses (i.e., brand
owners, packaging companies,
recyclers, etc.), governments,
and other organizations from
around the world united behind
the commitments common
Targets In line with the European
Strategy for Plastics in the
Circular Economy (European
Commission, 2018) the Alliance
wants to collect pledges
amounting to 10 m tons of
recycled plastics per year,
destined for products within the
EU, by 2025. Given a total
demand from European
converters of 51.2 m tons in
2018, this would be roughly
20% of the total EU plastics
Participants have to make a set
of pledges for 2025, i.e. moving
from single-use to multiple uses
where relevant, ensuring that
100% of plastic packaging is
reusable, recyclable, or
compostable, and setting
ambitious recycled content
targets between 25 and 100%
across all packaging used by
brand owners and packaging
S. Kahlert and C.R. Bening
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 181 (2022) 106279
deviate by 22% from the Eunomia data (2.33m tons from Global Data vs.
2.84m tons from Eunomia). The deviation can be explained as follows:
1) Global Data focuses only on PET beverage bottles, whereas Eunomia
estimates the percentage split of all PET packaging across applications (i.
e., beverage and non-beverage bottles, trays, and other applications). 2)
Global Data collected the data in 2018, whereas Eunomia applied
growth rates on earlier data from several studies. 3) In contrast to
Eunomia, Global Data does not include volumes for Iceland, Norway,
and Switzerland that are not relevant for the CPA pledges. Imports of
baled PET bottle waste from outside the EU are excluded since they are
not comprehensively collected and negligible with regard to the overall
To get the status of DRS discussions as well as return quotas, we have
analyzed several sources, including Eunomia (Eunomia, 2020), Chang-
ing Markets Foundation (Changing Markets Foundation, 2020), the
Reloop Platform (Morawski, 2021), and TOMRA (Ringel, 2020), and
cross-checked the results via extensive internet search as well as expert
interviews and queries.
We calculated the scenario in ve steps: 1) By multiplying the 2018
PET bottle consumption volume Cons
(in tons) of each country
with its current collection rate r
, we approximated the current
collection volume per country through the existing infrastructure
Coll2018 =Cons2018 r2018
2) The potential additionally collected volume through implement-
ing a DRS Coll
is calculated as the sum of the current con-
sumption volume times the potential collection rate with a DRS
minus the current collection volume. For the potential collection
rate, we used the current average of collection rates of all countries
with a DRS:
CollAdd,2018 =Cons2018 rDRS,2018 Coll2018
3) To account for the market growth and the subsequent required
volumes in 2025, a growth factor i is included, which is approxi-
mated at 2% per year. The number of periods n, in this case, is set to 7
CollAdd,2025 =Cons2018 ∗ (1+i)nrDRS,2018 Cons2018
4) Since the collected material serves as input for recycling, the
additional volume has to be multiplied with the recycling efciencies
Rec to obtain the recyclate output Out
. To account for differences
in recycling plants and technological advances, we used three
different efciencies of 55%, 69%, and 80% for
OutRec,2025 =CollAdd,2025
Sorting losses are not taken into account, as these are very low in DRS,
and we base the calculation on the actual bottle volumesnot on a
material ow with foreign substances that would have to be sorted out,
as in Fig. 1.
5) The different subsets of countries were selected based on the
current status of each country in terms of implementing a DRS, and
their declared or (for the purpose of this scenario) assumed intention
of doing so. To obtain the recyclate output in each subset, we
calculated the sum over all countries included in the subset:
3. Results
We built and evaluated an extensive database of companies and
material ows along the entire value chain of PET and rPET, including
production, collection, and recycling data in the EU, the relevant im-
ports and exports, as well as the pledges from the two above-mentioned
campaigns. We not only integrated information from existing databases
(e.g., Eurostat), online sources, and industry and company reports (e.g.,
Plastics Europe, Eunomia), but also corroborated and complemented our
ndings in 21 interviews with company representatives, policymakers,
academia, and experts along the value chain (see Supplementary
Table 2). Our results are divided into two parts: 1) A comparison of
current volumes with the pledges and 2) a scenario analysis. In the rst
part, we used the compiled data to analyze the gap to fullling the
Fig. 1. PET production and recycling in the EU in 2018 vs. pledges for 2025 (Cr´
epet, 2019, Eunomia, 2020, Eurostat, 2019).
S. Kahlert and C.R. Bening
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 181 (2022) 106279
pledges and to calculate the effects of developments in PET collection,
sorting, and recycling. In the second part, we calculate two scenarios
that will have a decisive inuence on the gap between the current
projection of rPET supply in 2025 and what brand owners have pledged.
3.1. Comparison of current production, consumption, and recycling with
the pledges for 2025
Of the 5.3m tons of PET placed on the EU market in 2018, 4.265m
was used in packaging (see Fig. 1) (Eunomia, 2020, Eurostat, 2019) and
hence the relevant material stream for the abovementioned pledges.
Most of the PET in packaging is rigid material (e.g., for bottles), which is
easier to recycle mechanically compared to exibles (e.g., for trays/-
lms). Only ~50% of the 4.265 m tons was collected for recycling, with
the rest being incinerated in mixed waste streams, landlled, or littered.
After deducting losses in sorting (8%) and recycling (31%), 1.348 m tons
of rPET in different qualities were produced in the EU in 2018. Inter-
estingly, almost half of this amount was used in applications other than
packaging and the rest equally shared between bottle and tray appli-
cations (see Fig. 1: Output).
In contrast, the pledged rPET volume for the year 2025 amounts to
2.066m tons (with an underlying growth rate of 0.8% p.a. see Sup-
plementary Material 2), three-quarters of which is to be used in pack-
aging (Cr´
epet, 2019, European Commission, 2019). This would require a
53% increase of rPET outputs over the coming years compared to 2018
(equal to 6.3% per year). For bottles and trays specically, the required
increase is even higher, with 132% and 75%, respectively. This is
challenging for at least three reasonsquantity, quality, and price-
which we will elaborate on later in this article: First, the quantity will be
difcult to achieve with collection and subsequent recycling volumes
seeing low historic growth rates of 3.6% and 3.1% p.a. since 2014,
respectively (Petcore Europe, 2016). Second, not only does the recyclate
have to be provided in sufcient quantity, but the quality of the material
also has to t the purpose, with food packaging exhibiting higher re-
quirements than any other application. Third, the rising recyclate price
might exceed packaging companieswillingness to pay: Other industries
(e.g., textiles and automotive) also compete for rPETand can often-
times pay much higher prices, since margins are larger on clothing than
on water bottles.
To give an estimate of how large the persisting gap is if we remain on
the current trajectory, we investigated the potential in the three steps of
collection, sorting, and recycling.
3.1.1. Collection
Approaches to plastic collection differ by country, with some going
for mixed collection together with other recyclables such as paper,
cardboard, or aluminum (e.g., Belgium, France, Italy), while others
prefer separate material streams (e.g., Austria, Netherlands, Denmark)
(Seyring et al., 2015). The current overall collection quota for PET of
around 50% in the EU is mostly driven by bottle collection (see Fig. 1)
(European Commission, 2008). This yields two levers to increase the
collection rate: 1) ramp up the collection of other (non-bottle) PET
streams and 2) improve the collection of bottles. Other possible waste
streams are mainly trays and lms, but also PET contents in textiles.
However, they are usually not collected separately and hence require
improved sorting and recycling technologies as well as dedicated
guidelines that account for material differences to bottle recycling. To
organize bottle collection, eight EU member states currently have a
mandatory DRS, while seven more plan to introduce one over the next
few years (Changing Markets Foundation, 2020 Morawski, 2021,
Eunomia, 2020). Comparing the bottle collection rates from countries
with a DRS (90.8%) to those without (46.5%) suggests signicant po-
tential for increasing collection volumes through DRSs (Alvarado Cha-
con et al., 2020, Ringel, 2020). However, it takes time from the decision
to implement a DRS, given the signicant investments in infrastructure
required. To ensure enough recyclate is available for achieving the
pledges by 2025, collection for recycling would have to increase from
2.1m to 3.3m tons, assuming unchanged sorting and recycling ef-
ciencies. We investigate the feasibility of such an increase in scenario 1.
3.1.2. Sorting
Since the pledges are mainly made for food packaging such as bottles
and trays, sorting is important to ensure high purity and quality of the
recyclate. As a matter of fact, the European Food Safety Agency allows
for only 5% of recycling inputs to come from non-food consumer ap-
plications if the resulting rPET is to qualify for usage in food packaging
(European Commission, 2008). This requires a separate collection and
sorting infrastructure, which is to date only available for PET bottles. A
relaxation of the 5% threshold would in turn allow for more rPET to be
reused in food packaging (Franz and Welle, 2020). In addition, tech-
nological advances in digital watermarking and chemical tracing can
improve the sorting process and reduce the losses at this step (Belder,
2020). With industrial tests for watermarking starting in 2022, this
could still come in time to aid the 2025 targets (AIM, 2022). Never-
theless, even if sorting losses could be fully eliminated, this would only
increase the current volume by 0.2 m tons.
3.1.3. Recycling
Since 2014, the EU PET recycling industry has seen very little
growth, with an installed capacity of 2.2m tons of input material in 2018
(see Fig. 2) (Eunomia, 2020). Extrapolating past growth rates for
collection, recycling capacity, and actual recycling volume to 2025
reveal a decit in all three areas to reach the volumes pledged by in-
dustry. This yields four levers to increase the recycling rate: 1)
increasing the utilization of existing capacity, 2) expanding the capacity,
3) increasing the recycling efciency, and 4) establishing emergent
technologies such as chemical recycling. First, even if some potential to
increase plant utilization (from currently 85% to a maximum of 95%) is
accounted for, this will be far from sufcient to reach the required tar-
gets. Second, to attain the pledged volume of 2.066 m tons, more than 3
m tons of capacity are required, but only some new plants have been
commissioned or announced recently. Third, in addition to new-built
capacities, cleaner input materials and enhanced processing could
improve recycling efciencies which currently vary signicantly across
countries and plants. However, even if recycling efciencies were
increased (from 69% to 80%) and optimization of input quality through
improved collection and sorting was reached, material input to recycling
would still need to increase by 32% 2.6 m tons. Fourth, while me-
chanical recycling of PET mostly requires separate collection and
meticulous sorting, recent developments in chemical recycling give
hope for better recovery of mixed waste streams in a few years but
probably not by 2025.
3.2. Scenario analysis
In view of the ambiguous recent developments in collection, sorting,
and recycling as described above and the industrys pledge for 2.066m
tons of rPET used in 2025, we have sketched two scenarios that will have
a decisive inuence on the gap between the current projection of rPET
supply in 2025 and what brand owners have pledged. Specically, we
analyzed how supply and demand in the EU would change if:
1 A DRS for bottles was introduced (in selected countries) and hence
more bottles were collected;
2 The price for rPET was driven up by demand from other industri-
ese.g., for textiles and automotive applications.
3.2.1. Scenario 1: expansion of DRS for PET bottles across the EU
Due to the beverage bottleswide usage, littering potential, but also
relatively easy collectability, they are subject to dedicated regulation,
with an EU-wide separate collection target of 77% until 2025 and 90%
S. Kahlert and C.R. Bening
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 181 (2022) 106279
until 2029 (European Parliament, June 5th, 2019). However, choosing
instruments to achieve the target falls under the responsibility of na-
tional enforcement. As mentioned above, DRS are considered an effec-
tive means to increase the reuse and recycling of plastic containers (Leal
Filho et al., 2019). For example, Lithuania increased its collection rate
from 32% to 92% in the two years after implementing a DRS
e, 2019). In light of tightening collection and recycling
targets, seven more EU member states have enshrined the imple-
mentation of a DRS in law in the coming years, while some others have
started exploratory discussions (see Fig 3) (Changing Markets Founda-
tion, 2020 Morawski, 2021, Eunomia, 2020).
To estimate the impact of more countries adopting a DRS, we have
calculated the expected additional recyclate available when DRS are
implemented (or expanded) in ve different subsets of countries,
assuming varied collection rates and recycling efciencies (see Fig. 4).
The gap of 0.718 m tons of PET between currently recycled amounts
and the pledges can only be lled if all countries in the EU (incl. UK, as
we assume the pledges for the UK market will remain the same) adopt a
DRS and either ensure the best-in-class recycling efciency of 80% (at
current average collection rates) or the best-in-class collection rate of
96.3% (at any given recycling efciency). A DRS, however, requires
signicant investments and planning, which makes implementation and
ramp-up in all countries before 2025 highly unlikely (Calabrese et al.,
2021, Zhou et al., 2020). In all other cases, the introduction of DRS for
bottles alone will not be enough to reach the proclaimed targetFig. 4.
The ve subsets in comprise a) all countries in the EU (incl. UK) that
have scheduled the implementation of a DRS in law (planned), b) all
countries from a) plus those that are currently in discussion, c) all
countries in the EU (incl. UK), d) all countries from c), assuming the
best-in-class collection rate from Germany (currently at 96.3%), and e)
only the largest ve countries in terms of market volume without a DRS
(IT, FR, ES, PL, UK) independent of their current status of DRS discus-
sion. a),b),c) and e) were calculated with the current average collection
rate for DRS of 90.8%. To account for differences in recycling technol-
ogy, we furthermore varied the degrees of recycling efciency at 55%
(worst case), 69% (current average), and 80% (best in class). Since the
target of 2.066m is set for 2025 volumes, we assumed historic growth
rates for bottle consumption of 2% per year (Morawski, 2021, Eunomia,
3.2.2. Scenario 2: rising recyclate prices driven by rPET demand from other
In the second scenario, we focused on the rising recyclate price
driven by the uptake of rPET in other markets outside of packaging.
Many industries are working on greeningtheir image and claim
recycled content for their products (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020,
European Commission, 2019). Since rPET is the most widely used and
versatile recycled polymer, demand is steadily increasing: 68% of the
recyclate in 2018 was used in other end markets such as non-food
packaging (26%), bers (24%), strapping (10%), and others (8%)
(Eunomia, 2020). To get a sense of the potential increase in rPET de-
mand, we analyzed the developments in two exemplary markets outside
of packaging: textiles and automotive.
PETtermed polyesterin the textile industryis one of the main
input materials for man-made bers. Indeed, around 64% of global PET
production ows into bers (e.g., for textiles), compared to 36% into
packaging (IHS Markit, 2018). Consumer demand for more sustainable
products has long reached the textile industry as well: EDANA, the
leading nonwovens (i.e., fabrics made from bers) association in
Europe, has pledged to use 300000 tons of rPET by 2025a 40% uptick
compared to 2018 (Stevens, 2018). While this volume is included in the
2.066m tons of the CPA pledge, nonwovens are only used in special
textile applications such as hygiene, medical, or garments, covering just
a minor share of the ber production for textile. Additionally, Textile
Exchange and the Fashion industry Charter for Climate Action have
launched an initiative to increase the uptake of recycled polyester from
Fig. 2. PET bottle collection, recycling, and recycling capacity incl. utilization (in %) for 2014 to 2018 in the EU as well as forecasted and targeted volumes for 2025.
Data for the EU incl. the UK. Values for 2014 2018 are based on Petcore industry surveys, while forecasts are based on the annual growth rates from these surveys
from 2014 to 2018 of 3.6%, 3.1%, and 1.2% for collection, recycling volume, and recycling capacity, respectively (Eunomia, 2020, Petcore Europe, 2016, Petcore
Europe, 2017, Petcore Europe and ICIS, 2018). The required targets are calculated as required annual growth rates to reach the pledged volume of 2.066 m tons in
2025, assuming a 95% utilization of recycling plants and the current average recycling efciency of 69%.
Fig. 3. Current status of DRS implementation in Europe.
S. Kahlert and C.R. Bening
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 181 (2022) 106279
13.7% in 2019 to 45% by 2025 with 141 global brands and suppliers
joining (Textile Exchange, 2021). And many fashion brands are already
going beyond this commitment, ultimately requiring substantial
amounts of high-quality recyclate. Adidas, for example, has pledged to
use 100% recycled polyester (i.e. rPET) by 2024 (Adidas, 2021), while
H&M and IKEA have promised to use recycled materials exclusively by
2030 (H&M Group, 2021, IKEA, 2019), using rPET as the main input. In
2019 alone, IKEA already used 150000 tons of rPET in its textile
product range, achieving 50% recycled content (i.e. 5 billion collected
and recycled PET bottles with an average assumed weight of 30 g (IKEA,
2019). Since currently only 50% of all polyester textile products are
made from recycled material, this amount is expected to double to
300000 tons (growth). While most companiesproduction is spread
across the world, they will probably revert to the EU rPET market due to
its high quality and size. Assuming a continuation of the 3.8% annual
growth rate of the European nonwoven industry from 2005 to 2019 and
the current rPET share of 40% of overall polyester usage, this would
already require a total of 416,635 tons by 202539% more than
currently pledged by EDANA.
The automotive industry has also been using PET for many years and
in many different areas, from interior elements such as carpets and seat
belts to reinforcing lters and tires (Saricam and Okur, 2018). Recycled
PET is increasingly being used here as well, with additional applications
and alternative waste streams currently under investigation. For
example, Michelin is partnering with Carbios to create sustainable tires
made of rPET from colored and opaque bottles. With the worldwide
market size for tires at around 800,000 tons per year and sustainability
efforts ramping up, this could further strain the availability of rPET
e et al., 2021). On top of this comes an average of 25 kg of bers
per passenger car and a share of 42% PET today, amounting to 10.5 kg
per car or 159,168 tons for the EU new passenger car market in 2018
alone (ACEA, 2019, Saricam and Okur, 2018). Assuming 50% recycled
content in 2025 this would require an additional ~80,000 tons of rPET
(even without growth), squeezing the market still further.
Fig. 4. Potential increase in recyclate production through DRS in different subsets of EU member states.
Fig. 5. Market prices for rPET food-grade, rPET non-food-grade, and PET food-grade from October 2016 to February 2022 (McGeough, 2021, Tudball, 2022).
S. Kahlert and C.R. Bening
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 181 (2022) 106279
Current high demand has already led to price premiums of up to
100% for food-grade recycled PET compared to virgin PET (see Fig. 5).
This trend will most likely continue, resulting in substantial increases in
packaging costs and putting further pressure on the already-slim mar-
gins for producers which might ultimately have to revert to virgin ma-
terial for cost reasons. While more rPET owed to food-contact bottles in
2019 (McGeough, 2021), this could change in the near future if prices
surpass the willingness-to-pay of packaging companies. However, high
prices allow for further investments into innovative technologies, as well
as collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure, with less material
being incinerated or landlled due to its inherent value.
4. Discussion and conclusion
4.1. Fostering the uptake of recycled content for PET in the EU and
Ambitious pledges have been made to counter the public outcry
around plastics and their pollution of the natural environment. By
analyzing the current ow of PET and rPET in the EU in 2018 and brand
ownersrecycled content pledges for the year 2025, we found that rPET
production has to increase by at least 53%, or 6.3% p.a., to have enough
recyclate available. We discussed current developments in collection,
sorting, and recycling, as well as two potential scenarios that might
impact their fulllment. While the widespread implementation of a DRS
for bottles alone will hardly be sufcient and in time to achieve the
pledges, it can signicantly boost collection and subsequent recycling
also beyond 2025. In turn, the growing market for rPET applications
outside packaging exacerbates the existing imbalance between supply
and demand, which might result in additional price surges.
These results illustrate the necessity for concerted measures to drive
improvements along the waste management value chain and subse-
quently recyclate availability, quality, and affordability for PET pack-
aging across the EU. Apart from the swift and ideally uniform
introduction of DRS for bottles across member states, the collection of
trays, lms, and other applications such as polyester for bers will be
required to ensure sufcient input material. Extended producer re-
sponsibility schemes can help nance the investments and drive recy-
clability through eco-modulation (i.e., higher fees for products with
lower recyclability). Furthermore, improvements in sorting technologies
for recovering PET from mixed waste streams are urgently needed.
Finally, recycling processes for these mixed streams that allow the ma-
terial to be used for food-grade packaging have to be developed, scaled,
and approved. A recent breakthrough in enzymatic depolymerase
certainly raises hopes (Tournier et al., 2020). However, even with the
foreseeable innovations and their necessary scaling, the timeframe until
2025 will most likely be too short.
Besides the need for innovation in technology and investments in
infrastructure, regulatory changes can also be an important lever to
balance rPET demand and supply. An EU-wide, robust regulatory
framework is required to support these developments along the value
chain. The harmonization of legal requirements for recyclate quality and
content in new products is particularly important to level the playing
eld across member states and allows companies to sufciently scale
new technological solutions. The enforcement of the voluntary pledges
for PET bottles under the single-use plastics directive was a step in this
direction, requiring 25% recycled content by 2025 and 30% by 2030
((European Parliament 2019)European Parliament, June 5th, 2019).
However, we also see a need for action in two other areas for PET in
particular: 1) ensuring that rPET is used according to its quality (i.e.,
food-grade rPET only for food-grade applications); and 2) stipulating
recycled content targets across applications (e.g., directly at converters)
to embed recycling and usage of recyclate into every plastic product.
Only when polyester is recycled into polyester and bottles become
bottles again, can the EU goal of a circular economy for plastics be
achieved (European Commission, 2018). For PET and its properties
concerning food applications, such a closed-loop solution is superior to
open-loop solutions (Packaging Europe, 2021). But not any closed-loop
approach is necessarily a sustainable circular economy solution (Blum
et al., 2020).
With the EU leading the way, it will be important to make sure
recycled content targets are implemented in other regions as well.
Otherwise, market dynamics could lead to unfavorable developments:
Due to the shortage of high-quality recyclate and the resulting price
premium in the EU market, companies have already looked at sourcing
from overseas (Tudball, 2020). While this could enable the expansion of
local collection infrastructures, it can also inhibit the startup of a recy-
cling industry, as the material is exported in sorted bales, with the
recycling taking place in the EU. This development is already apparent,
as the quality of bales is easier to control and they can be processed to a
higher grade than already-extruded granules. Furthermore, it might
delay efforts in the EU to improve recyclability and collection of
currently unrecovered waste streams, since the targets can be met with
volumes from overseas.
4.2. Other polymers need to step up their game
The collection and recycling of PET have been tried and tested for
over three decades, due to the versatility and widespread usage of the
material (Welle, 2011). However, improving the circularity of other
polymers is more difcult. Oftentimes, recycling technologies are not yet
developedlet alone a proper sorting infrastructure to separate valu-
able materials from mixed waste streams. New technologies such as
chemical and solvent-based recycling can help to ease the tension by
recovering plastics from currently unrecyclable waste streams, but it
will take years until these technologies are rolled out at an industrial
scale (Kusenberg et al., 2021, Thiounn and Smith, 2020). This will make
it especially difcult to achieve the pledges for other polymers, but also
the recycling target set by the European Parliament for EU member
statespackaging waste in general, which is 50% (55%) for the year
2025 (2030) (European Parliament, 2018). Here, too, a clear legal
framework and a coordinated approach within the EU are needed to
attract investment and work on solutions together.
4.3. Can pledges alone get plastics recycled?
Compared to the regulatory-prescribed recycled content quota of
25% for food packaging until 2025, which translates to 1.709 m tons of
rPET, the industry pledges are more extensive. At the same time, the
voluntary pledges have served as a landmark for the formulation of the
respective regulation. Hence, the pledges have already partly become
legally binding commitments and if fullled would have an effect on
the market that is overriding the regulatory goals and could change the
economic rationale of rPET.
Looking at the growing list of signatories, it also seems that the
pledges have created some sort of pull effect. For example, UNESDA, the
European soft drinks association, has recently pledged to use 50%
recycled content by 2025 and 100% by 2030 (UNESDA, 2021). The
pledges have started and framed the discussion and spurred investments
in the required infrastructurealthough these are still not far-reaching
enough, as we have shown in this paper.
For the pledges to become a success, two main challenges remain to
be solved: Pledges have been made by individual companies and asso-
ciations while some of the crucial parameters that are needed to be
addressed to reach the targets are governed by institutional actors (e.g.,
DRS implementation) or other companies than those that signed (e.g.,
collection companies). Geographical inequalities need to be prevented,
e.g., when brand-owners rally recycled materials from developing
countries to achieve targets in developed nations. Similar to the carbon
crediting debate, it is an unsolved question of how environmental
integrity can be assured in the face of well-known problems related to
baselines and additionality. Addressing these questions, however, is
S. Kahlert and C.R. Bening
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 181 (2022) 106279
crucial not only to achieve the pledges in the EU but also to drive the
circularity of plastics worldwide.
Declaration of Competing Interest
The authors declare that they have no known competing nancial
interests or personal relationships that cdocould have appeared to in-
uence the work reported in this paper.
We thank the Swiss National Science Foundation (NFP 73) for
nancing the TACLE project in the context of which this article has been
developed. We would also like to thank Volker Hoffmann for his valu-
able comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.
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To achieve a sustainable circular economy, polymers need to start transitioning to recycled and biobased feedstock and accomplish CO2 emission neutrality. This is not only true for structural polymers, such as in packaging or engineering applications, but also for functional polymers in liquid formulations, such as adhesives, lubricants, thickeners or dispersants. At their end of life, polymers need to be either collected and recycled via a technical pathway, or be biodegradable if they are not collectable. Advances in polymer chemistry and applications, aided by computational material science, open the way to addressing these issues comprehensively by designing for recyclability and biodegradability. This review explores how scientific advances, together with emerging regulatory frameworks, societal expectations and economic boundary conditions, paint pathways for the transformation towards a circular economy of polymers.
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To achieve a sustainable circular economy, polymers need to start transitioning to recycled and biobased feedstock and accomplish CO2 emission neutrality. This is not only true for structural polymers, such as in packaging or engineering applications, but also for functional polymers in liquid formulations, such as adhesives, lubricants, thickeners or dispersants. At their end of life, polymers need to be either collected and recycled via a technical pathway, or be biodegradable if they are not collectable. Advances in polymer chemistry and applications, aided by computational material science, open the way to addressing these issues comprehensively by designing for recyclability and biodegradability. This review explores how scientific advances, together with emerging regulatory frameworks, societal expectations and economic boundary conditions, paint pathways for the transformation towards a circular economy of polymers.
The challenge for a circular plastics economy transition is to focus policies on key leverage points that initiate actual system transitions. This requires a systemic perspective on the plastics industries. This study takes such a systemic perspective by employing a network approach to examine the often-underestimated complexity of interrelating markets in a circular plastics economy, and their structural sensitivity to governance interventions. Based on the case of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) markets in Germany, we investigate the structures and underlying dynamics of increasing circularity in the PET industry. Concerns about plastic litter accumulating in the natural environment have facilitated the development of niche markets for the recycling of plastic litter recovered from the environment. We systematically reveal that recycling markets connecting diverse waste sources with a broad range of new applications are key areas of intervention in the structural transitions towards circular industries. By connecting otherwise disconnected parts of the system, the recycling of recovered plastic litter is a key leverage point for the circular economy transition. We recommend to focus governance efforts on such key leverage markets as powerful venues to initiate systemic change.
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Thermochemical recycling of plastic waste to base chemicals via pyrolysis followed by a minimal amount of upgrading and steam cracking is expected to be the dominant chemical recycling technology in the coming decade. However, there are substantial safety and operational risks when using plastic waste pyrolysis oils instead of conventional fossil-based feedstocks. This is due to the fact that plastic waste pyrolysis oils contain a vast amount of contaminants which are the main drivers for corrosion, fouling and downstream catalyst poisoning in industrial steam cracking plants. Contaminants are therefore crucial to evaluate the steam cracking feasibility of these alternative feedstocks. Indeed, current plastic waste pyrolysis oils exceed typical feedstock specifications for numerous known contaminants, e.g. nitrogen (∼1650 vs. 100 ppm max.), oxygen (∼1250 vs. 100 ppm max.), chlorine (∼1460 vs. 3 ppm max.), iron (∼33 vs. 0.001 ppm max.), sodium (∼0.8 vs. 0.125 ppm max.) and calcium (∼17 vs. 0.5 ppm max.). Pyrolysis oils produced from post-consumer plastic waste can only meet the current specifications set for industrial steam cracker feedstocks if they are upgraded, with hydrogen based technologies being the most effective, in combination with an effective pre-treatment of the plastic waste such as dehalogenation. Moreover, steam crackers are reliant on a stable and predictable feedstock quality and quantity representing a challenge with plastic waste being largely influenced by consumer behavior, seasonal changes and local sorting efficiencies. Nevertheless, with standardization of sorting plants this is expected to become less problematic in the coming decade.
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The surge of research on marine litter is generating important information on its inputs, distribution and impacts, but data on the nature and origin of the litter remain scattered. Here, we harmonize worldwide litter-type inventories across seven major aquatic environments and find that a set of plastic items from take-out food and beverages largely dominates global litter, followed by those resulting from fishing activities. Compositional differences between environments point to a trend for litter to be trapped in nearshore areas so that land-sourced plastic is released to the open ocean, predominantly as small plastic fragments. The world differences in the composition of the nearshore litter sink reflected socioeconomic drivers, with a reduced relative weight of single-use items in high-income countries. Overall, this study helps inform urgently needed actions to manage the production, use and fate of the most polluting human-made items on our planet, but the challenge remains substantial.
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Plastic is valued for its versatility but concerns have been raised over the environmental impacts of mismanaged plastic waste. A better understanding of plastic flows can help to identify areas of inefficiency and potential leakage to natural systems. This research provides an overview of plastic flows in the EU and discusses options to increase plastic circularity. The study conducted a comprehensive stationary material flow analysis covering over 400 categories of plastic-containing products with detailed analysis of the final destination of waste. The results show the relevance of the EU plastic sector with production of over 66 MT of plastic polymers/fibres and an estimated consumption for plastic products of 73 MT in 2016. Plastic waste arisings amounted to over 37 MT and, though increasing plastic recycling rates have been reported, the analysis shows that a significant amount of plastic waste did not return back to production in the EU. The uncertainty analysis highlights important data quality issues that need to be addressed, particularly: data on the plastic fraction in plastic-containing products, and data on the final destination of plastic waste. Building on the analysis, the paper discusses a number of strategies for re-directing the plastic system to more circular pathways.
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Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used to account for ≈50% of China’s waste plastics import. In 2018, the Chinese government banned the import of waste plastics due to the environmental and health burdens caused by the waste treatment processes. However, the recycling of waste PET also helps avoid the production of virgin PET and several corresponding environmental impacts such as fossil resources use and carbon emission, which remain unquantified. We combine material flow analysis and life cycle assessment to map the PET bottle cycles and evaluate the relevant environmental performances during 2000–2018 in China. The cumulative recycling of PET bottles amounted to 78 million tons (Mt) in China during the studied period. Among them, 29 Mt waste PET bottles (37% of total recycling) were imported from abroad and accounted for 40% of the world’s total export. Most waste PET bottles in China was recycled to produce PET fibers, which significantly improved global PET circularity, reduced the use of virgin PET material, and saved about 109 Mt oil-eq of fossil resources (e.g., coal and oil) use and avoided 233 Mt CO2-eq emissions. Despite these benefits, the environmental burdens with regional impacts during waste plastics treatment should be significantly reduced, and technologies for close-loop, namely bottle-to-bottle, recycling of PET should be further developed and widely applied.
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PET beverage bottles have been recycled and safely reprocessed into new food contact packaging applications for over two decades. During recollection of post-consumer PET beverage bottles, PET containers from non-food products are inevitably co-collected and thereby enter the PET recycling feed stream. To explore the impact of this mixing on the safety-in-use of recycled PET (rPET) bottles, we determined the concentrations of post-consumer substances in PET containers used for a range of non-food product applications taken from the market. Based on the chemical nature and amounts of these post-consumer substances, we evaluated their potential carry-over into beverages filled in rPET bottles starting from different fractions of non-food PET in the recollection systems and taking worst-case cleaning efficiencies of super-clean recycling processes into account. On the basis of the Threshold of Toxicological Concern (TTC) concept and Cramer classification tools, we present a risk assessment for potential exposure of the consumer to the identified contaminants as well as unidentified, potentially genotoxic substances in beverages. As a result, a fraction of 5% non-food PET in the recycling feed stream, which is very likely to occur in the usual recollection systems, does not pose any risk to the consumer. Our data show that fractions of up to 20%, which may sporadically be contained in certain, local recollection systems, would also not raise a safety concern.
The Circular Plastics Alliance initiative aims to boost the uptake of recycled plastics (as regranulates) up to 10 million ton by 2025. Consequently, the demand for regranulates in Belgium and the Netherlands is expected to increase as electronic producers begin to pledge to use 25 % regranulates in their products by 2025 or 2030. Therefore, this research aims to gain insights into the potential of regranulates to be used in vacuum cleaners, coffee machines, and electric shavers, which are products with a fair amount of plastics concentration in the small household appliances (SHA) category of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). A model is developed to forecast the amount of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) generated in 2030 in Belgium and the Netherlands using multivariate input-output analysis. The amount of regranulates released by the current formal WEEE management systems of SHA waste is quantified using material flow analysis, which equal to 22 %. This research indicates the need of improved collection rate and pre-processing efficiency (dismantling, shredding, and sorting) to at least 64 % to achieve the target of using recycled content in EEE. Moreover, up to 5 % of WEEE may still contain hazardous substances like brominated flame retardants by 2030. Lastly, through scenario analysis, we predict that the target to use recycled content in vacuum cleaners can be realized by 2027 or by 2023 in the base and positive scenario respectively, regardless of the changes in material composition as long as the collection and pre-processing technologies are continuously improved.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a widely used plastic material that may cause significant environmental pollution. China is a major global producer and consumer of PET. Previous studies have focused on the effects of toxic elements from PET (e.g., antimony leached from PET products) on the environment. However, detailed information about PET, particularly about the PET production, trade, use, and recycling in China, is limited. This study developed a network model of PET flows in China, including the production, market trade, manufacturing and use, and waste management and recycling stages. Based on this network model, the characteristics of PET flows during three periods of development for the PET industry were analyzed. The results show that the fiber and bottle manufacturing industries are the industries with the largest PET in-use stocks. The PET flows showed different characteristics in the terms of waste import, recycling, and disposal (mechanical recycling, chemical recycling, incineration, landfill, and discarding) in the different periods of PET industrial development. Notably, the amount of discarded PET was significant, and the treatment of waste PET would probably be a challenge in the future. Policies for improving the PET cycling system were provided on the basis of the study results to promote the management and sustainable utilization of PET materials.
Deposit-Refund Systems (DRS) are one of the most effective methods to collect one-way beverage packaging. Yet, the analysis of their operating modes and related cost burdens for each actor are still evolving. This study analyses the operating modes and the cost burdens of ten European DRS’ using a number of building blocks shared among the different systems. This approach facilitates their comparison and the development of new models. The building blocks are identified through content analysing some relevant reports. The results show that the required building blocks are the four actors in the process – namely the DRS operator, producers, retailers, and customers –, the money-material flows among the actors (operating mode), and the costs and revenues for each actor (cost burden). Using this approach, the ten models in Europe are reduced to four DRS archetypes. Each archetype has a different money-material flow and a different cost burden for each actor. There are in total 18 costs and 9 revenues. This study contributes to the systematic analysis of DRS’ in terms of their operating modes and related cost burdens for each actor. Using building blocks to describe the DRS’ facilitates the comparison of different models and the analysis of their efficiency and effectiveness. Moreover, it provides a tool to develop new, country-specific DRS’ in those areas where DRS’ do not exist.
This study evaluates the potential circularity of PET, PE, and PP flows in Europe based on dynamic material flow analysis (MFA), considering product lifetimes, demand growth rates, and quality reductions of recycled plastic (downcycling). The circularity was evaluated on a baseline scenario, representing 2016 conditions, and on prospective scenarios representing key circularity enhancing initiatives, including (i) maintaining constant plastic consumption, (ii) managing waste plastic exports in the EU, (iii) design-for-recycling initiatives, (iv) improved collection, and (v) improved recovery and reprocessing. Low recycling rates (RR, 13-20%) and dependence on virgin plastic, representing 85-90% of the annual plastic demand, were demonstrated after 50 years in the baseline. Limited improvements were related to the individual scenarios, insufficient to meet existing recycling targets. However, by combining initiatives, RRs above 55%, where 75-90% was recycled in a closed loop, were demonstrated. Moreover, 40-65% of the annual demand could potentially be covered by recycled plastic. Maintaining a constant plastic demand over time was crucial in order to reduce the absolute dependence on virgin plastic, which was not reflected by the RR. Thus, focusing strictly on RRs and even whether and to which extent virgin material is substituted, is insufficient for evaluating the transition toward circularity, which cannot be achieved by technology improvements alone-the demand must also be stabilized.