by Sumangali Krishnan
Recovery of Post Consumer Plastic Packaging. Plastics in packaging are actively being targeted in a bid to prevent them from ending up in the ocean or landfills and dumpsites. To stem this flow, we must either stop consuming plastic and actively ensure that the plastic once used – is captured in a way that does not harm the environment. In recent years, there has been a sizable focus on the second effort, with efforts to boost recycling awareness and the resources being deployed towards the recycling and recovery of packaging.
For some plastic types such as PET bottles, a tenuous value chain exists in developing economies, where the informal sector collects these materials for a small price and it is then processed into flakes or pellets to be reintroduced into the economy. As economies develop, there is less incentive to collect these materials unless there is an increase in the monetary incentive. In developing nations South and SouthEast Asia, informal collection systems and low tech recycling technologies have allowed for the recycling not only domestically post consumer plastic but also of plastic waste imported from other countries.
Post Consumer Plastic Waste Value Chain. As more and more packaging manufacturers are called upon to take responsibility for their packaging, many are turning to the existing plastic recycling value chains in developing economies to collect and process their post consumer packaging. The additional resources deployed for increased collection is great for higher value plastics such as PET, which suffers from the challenges of low profit margin. However, systems are challenged when it comes to flexible and multi-layer packaging. The reasons can be broken down according to the typical steps of a recycling value chain:
DISPOSAL : When disposed/littered into the environment, this packaging is harder to retrieve and pick out given the size (generally smaller, hard to grip) and weight (flies away). When disposed mixed with other wet or unsanitary waste, it is both difficult and sometimes unsafe to retrieve out of the mix. It must ideally be collected separately, or at worst mixed with other clean and dry plastic waste. This requires compliance from the consumer/ disposer and is very rarely implemented.
COLLECTION: The waste collectors, formal or informal, must be properly incentivized to ensure collection of the flexible and multilayer packaging. This incentive must cover the additional effort of collection (small and scattered pieces of packaging), the lack of a market (very few technologies accept flexible packaging) and the challenging logistics of such packaging (it is difficult to store and challenging to pack down). When collected as part of mixed plastic waste, it requires a sorting facility where it can be sorted, weighed and stored for transportation. This effort must take into account the opportunity cost of other materials that have a higher market value.
TRANSPORTATION AND LOGISTICS: Lightweight packaging must be stuffed into sacks with considerable effort and compacted and stored to arrive at a reasonable tonnage. This takes up valuable space at limited sorting facilities. The cost of transportation to a processing facility – regardless of processing technology – is another additional cost, and one that must be borne by the technology provider or a program sponsor – unlike other high value plastics the market price for this material ( if any ) will not cover transportation costs.
RECOVERY/ RECYCLING: Technologies to process flexible packaging are still in development, have specific feedstock requirements and sometimes additional costs to ensure that the feedstock meets this requirement. This includes cleaning and preprocessing at RDF facilities, cement kilns or pyrolysis plants. Feedstock that does not meet these requirements must be disposed safely to a landfill at the cost of the technology provider.
ADMINISTRATIVE FEES: Because flexible and multilayer packaging doesn’t have a natural market, each of the above steps must be initiated and managed by one or more agencies. To build transparency and accountability, these agencies must perform additional tasks or data collection, service coordination, transfer of funds, and data collection and reporting.
Despite these challenges, many efforts to collect and process flexibles and multilayer packaging have been undertaken throughout the region. Despite best efforts, the cost of recovering flexible and multilayer packaging has been expensive and has no profit margin associated with it.
Examples from the region. Plastic Credit Exchange in the Philippines, collects flexible packaging for approximately 8-10 cents per kilo. This is the minimum amount required to cover the cost of collection and transfer to a processing facility. In a study conducted by Thailand, the suggested monetary incentive for collection of flexible packaging by an existing provider was 16 cents per kilo. In Myanmar, given the lower labour costs, the cost was lower at approximately 6 cents per kilogram. In Indonesia, programs and efforts have been carried out at a range 10 – 16 cents per kilo depending on the nature of the effort.
The cost of recovery for Flexible and Multilayer Packaging is not small. Creating an artificial market for these materials is the first step in ensuring collection and recovery – this artificial market must at minimum the above listed costs at around 10 to 20 cents per kilo depending on the local context. Even where the monetary costs have been covered by a sponsor, each of the organizations engaged in the collection and processing of flexibles and multilayer packaging have indicated the insufficiency of funds and continued challenges with implementation of these efforts.
The general challenges of waste collection and recycling management in developing countries is a hurdle for even the high value waste materials. Without economic and other support, it is even more difficult for flexible packaging. Once a scalable collection model is established, additional technologies and solutions can be explored.
Sumangali Krishnan is a circular economy and climate change consultant exploring research-based solutions and supporting businesses and institutions in identifying result oriented approaches towards combating environmental crises.
As the Chief Business Officer at GA Circular (GA) has developed and led various research, policy, behaviour change and industry led interventions aimed at developing a Circular Economy framework for South East Asia.
Sumangali is a trained lawyer, has a J.D. in Law and a Masters in Economics and has lived and worked in the United States prior to moving to Singapore.