Flags at the 2019 World Economic Forum.Plastics recycling was highlighted in multiple discussions and announcements at the World Economic Forum last week.

During one presentation, major brand owners, a resin producer and government regulators talked about how increased recycling is an immediate step that can be taken to reduce the ocean plastics problem.

The discussion comes amid a wider interest among brand owners and resin producers in the recycling industry. This month, those sectors spearheaded a $1 billion effort to “end plastic waste,” targeting the issue from a variety of angles. That project was discussed briefly during the World Economic Forum (WEF) presentation, but the talk also delved into specifics about recycling-related work that can be done now.

The WEF is a nonprofit organization that describes its mission as engaging “the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” Its annual meeting was held in Davos, Switzerland last week.

Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow Chemical, noted that some potential solutions, such as biodegradable packaging, might be ready in the future but that they need more time to develop.

“I think designing for 100 percent recyclability now is a near-term thing we can do,” he said.

Boosting collection infrastructure is another near-term action item, he said, as a way of building the circular economy. Even in developed countries recycling companies often don’t collect or accept hard-to-recycle materials, Fitterling noted. And few packaging streams are as clean as an average used PET bottle.

“In cases where you have a clean recycling stream … you can take that right back into a bottle, and that’s a great solution, but not everything is that way,” Fitterling said. “Some things are much harder to recycle, and we have to develop alternatives for them; we have to develop an infrastructure that collects them.”

He also touched on the rising impetus for virgin producers to get involved in solving environmental problems caused by plastic waste. The issues are now undeniable, he said, citing widely circulated marine pollution images and other growing awareness of plastic debris in the environment. Governments are looking to companies to help tackle plastic waste issues, he said, and if industry doesn’t respond, governments will go to regulations.

Multiple speakers touched on recycling technology. Ramon Laguarta, CEO of PepsiCo, said the company is interested in “technologies that, for example, can help us take what is dirty PET and transform it into eventually virgin PET.” PepsiCo last fall signed a deal with Canadian depolymerization company Loop Industries.

Fitterling expressed optimism for the future of chemical recycling technologies.

“It would be great if we could get the chemical recycling back to a monomer state, where I can make plastics out of that same plastic again, versus the alternative,” he said.

James Quincey, CEO of The Coca-Cola Co., outlined a vision for the future of recycled resin usage, describing a system in which using recycled content would be standard across the industry.

“What I want is that every bottle be made out of recycled plastic. It’d just become the norm,” Quincey said. “We’ve already proven that we can make the bottles out of 100 percent recycled plastic. We’ve gone to 50 percent plastic in small bottles in many countries.”

Learn more in person

Virgin resin manufacturers are increasingly investing in recycling, and the trend will be the focus of the opening plenary session at the 2019 Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show. The event is taking place March 11-13 at the Gaylord National near Washington, D.C. Go to the conference website to learn more and register.

He added that under such a system, there would be very little public-facing differentiation between recycled resin and virgin resin in consumer products.

“I don’t want people to say that recycled plastic is the cool, expensive one, and then the people who don’t have income don’t get the option of participating in saving the planet,” he said. “That’s not the objective. The objective is to make it the price of entry.”

French and Vietnamese government representatives offered a regulatory take on plastics waste and recycling. Brune Poirson, secretary of state for the French environmental ministry, described shortcomings with that country’s extended producer responsibility system and noted in-progress updates to the law.

Meanwhile, Tran Hong Ha, Vietnam’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, highlighted Vietnam’s move to stem growing imports of scrap plastic, and put it in the context of wider waste management improvements in the country.

In separate WEF plastics news, major brand owners joined TerraCycle in announcing “Loop,” a project to test reusable packaging for consumer goods. Loop “aims to improve the environmental performance and convenience standards compared to current e-commerce solutions through packaging that is collected, cleaned, refilled and reused.”

Industry publication Waste Dive interviewed TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky about the project and what it means for the U.S. waste and recycling industry.

Photo credit: Rumir/Shutterstock

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