EU legislation and the global war on plastic waste is leading to a massive amount of public and government attention being put on recycled plastics. Major global brands are making pledges to increase the amount of R-PET (recycled PET - polyethylene terephthalate) in their PET beverage bottles. This is to either meet or exceed the EU’s 25% target by 2025, largely driven by consumer pressure, or perhaps as a marketing ploy. ICIS data shows Europe does not produce anywhere near enough R-PET to meet that 25% target. So buyers are going to have to source from elsewhere, most likely outside of Europe, but that leads to the questions of ‘where from?’ and ‘of what quality?’
One option that may go some way towards answering this question is ocean-bound plastic.
Ocean-bound plastic was defined by Professor Jenna Jambeck et al in an article: ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean’, published in Science in 2015 as being:
- [Waste plastic] found within 50km distance of an ocean coastline or major waterway that feeds into the ocean
- The country or region lacks waste management infrastructure and collection incentives
- The infrastructure is being overwhelmed by population growth or tourism
- There is a significant risk to wildlife if plastic contaminates their ecosystem.
A growing number of companies are offering ocean-bound plastic as an alternative into the market but most have yet to establish themselves in the European market.
Bantam Materials, a REACH-registered, UK-based materials supplier that has been in the R-PET business for well over a decade, is one of those companies bringing ocean-bound plastic into Europe from Indonesia under the name of Prevented Ocean Plastic (POP), and is working with social enterprise OceanCycle to provide fully traceable POP material to European customers.
ICIS recently spoke to Bantam Director Raffi Schieir to better understand the company’s approach to POP plastic, and whether or not POP is a viable addition to the European buyer’s portfolio.
Traceability and certification are key
The aim of Bantam’s POP programme is twofold. First, to support local communities in at-risk areas where plastic will end up in the oceans. This can be done by incentivising communities to collect, sort and process plastic waste into high-quality recycled material. Second, to present consumers with the option to purchase products packaged in recycled material that has been proven to come from at-risk regions of the world.
“There is no programme anywhere that we are aware of that can give true and complete traceability according to academic definitions, together with third party certification, that will be able to trace the collection efforts in a specific coastal community all the way through to the final product on shelves,” Schieir said. Certification and traceability are the key factors that determine what defines POP compared to waste plastics collected inland. And it is the process of tracing and certifying the product that gives Bantam’s POP its slightly higher price position. However, the material Bantam is bringing into Europe is still priced within the normal free delivered (FD) northwest Europe (NWE) price range, albeit towards the top of that range.
“If the POP programme was priced one and a half or twice the price of the market and people were buying small amounts as symbolic gestures, local communities would not be supported with consistent collection and infrastructure would not be able to develop and grow for proper recycling.
“[This] is why our pricing is to-market within the European community, that means that our material is not even at the midpoint, our material is, however, priced between the mid-point and the high point of the market,” Schieir explained.
Price will always be an issue for an R-PET buyer, regardless of the quality or the social benefit. As virgin PET prices have dropped through 2020, squeezing recyclers’ margins, so has the amount of R-PET being used across Europe, with significant substitution away from R-PET and back to virgin PET taking place over the last few months.
In essence, the purchaser of POP is paying for the benefit of saying it sourced its material from an at-risk area. In doing so, it has prevented that material from entering the ocean – a message that should resonate with consumers.
However, it is the converters who are hurt by weak margins and pressure from brands that want them to supply recycled content at the lowest possible price.
Despite the financially challenging situation recyclers find themselves in at present, POP obviously is resonating with some. Discount food chain Lidl introduced POP into its fish packaging in the UK in March.
Quality and volumes
Currently, Bantam brings around 1,000 tonnes/month of POP into the European market. And in a recent webinar on ocean plastic, OceanCycle’s Ryan Schoenike said total monthly volumes could be close to 3,000 tonnes by the end of the year (although he did not specify if this was just volumes for R-PET). European foodgrade material capacity for R-PET in 2018 was just over 300,000 tonnes according to ICIS.
Schieir has faced challenges in getting European buyers to accept that material from outside of Europe is of good enough quality to meet their needs. But as 2025 creeps closer, and alternatives like chemical recycling are still likely a decade away, buyers are going to need to prop up their current volumes from somewhere.
In countries like Indonesia, which rely solely on bottled water to provide clean drinking water to thier citizens, it allows companies like Bantam to ensure its postconsumer bottles (PCB) have the highest PET content – in Bantam’s case its PCB in Indonesia contain 99% PET.
“If we begin with a 99% PET bale, and we apply our European and North American standard of sortation, process lab testing and regulatory certification, we are then able to achieve quality standards that are on par, and in some cases superior to what is commonly used in the European or North American markets,” Schieir explained.
Meeting Europe's rPET needs?
With the coronavirus pandemic still at the forefront of both the industry’s and consumer’s minds, together with weak PET bottle demand translating into weak R-PET demand and no sign of a pick-up in virgin PET prices anytime soon, oceanbound plastic will have to shout extra loud to make its voice and benefits heard in the European market.
Ocean-bound plastic volumes may be small and by no means sufficient to fill Europe’s R-PET supply gap, but it could offer an attractive addition to a buyer’s portfolio as a source of good quality recycled material, with the added benefit of preventing more plastic waste entering the ocean. And if the price levels can be maintained at a competitive level with those of European suppliers, what’s not to like about that?