What does ‘contains recycled plastic’ really mean?

recycled plastic

We need help with recycling definitions, says Dr Ross Headifen, General Manager FieldTech Solutions. He explains what ‘contains recycled plastic’ really means.

Prior to 2018, plastic recycling in Australia, for the most part, involved packing up recyclable materials, putting it in a container and sending it overseas. That changed in 2018 when the Chinese Sword Policy came into play and China stopped taking our plastic waste. Other neighbouring countries soon followed suit. 

Australia introduced laws to stop sending plastic waste offshore and government targets were set for recycling rates and recycled content in plastic. The collapse of soft plastics collection service REDcycle in 2022 left many consumers who want to do the right thing, questioning what do we do now?

Ross Headifen, General Manager FieldTech Solutions, says Australia has a long way to go in getting the recycling systems right, particularly plastics. 

There are several different types of base polymer plastic in common consumer use today, mainly PET, LDPE. HDPE. PVC, PP. For a high-grade recycled product, these materials cannot be mixed, but must be sorted first. That is a huge challenge. Who does this? Where is it done?

“There are thousands of different additives mixed in with the base polymer in plastics, such as additives for plasticising, UV stabilisers, fillers, degrading, hardeners, anti-static, flame retardant and more,” Ross says. “How do we think one piece of plastic recycled material can be mixed with another and still know the final properties?”

There are also thousands of shades of colours added into plastics. A piece of red plastic cannot be recycled into a clear plastic item, or a blue piece into a red item. All the colours must be separated to make like products. Ross says a limited solution is for a black additive to be mixed with coloured recycled items to produce a black material. But that throws up more questions. How many black items do we need and how is this colour separation going to occur? Where in the recycling process would it occur?

Hard plastics versus soft plastics also needs to be considered. They need to separated as their recycling processes are very different.

Ross says other challenges include little incentive for people to recycle their plastic and collection infrastructure needs to rapidly increase to reduce the 80 per cent of plastic waste currently going to landfill.

“Assuming all the above could be addressed and turned into a viable recycling industry, what we also need is a review of the definitions being used for recycling as it is far from simple.”

He says recycling makes consumers feel better about disposal of packaging and end of life of products. In its purest form, recycling is where materials are used to make a product, the product is used by consumers and the material is sent back to be processed into further similar products. This is known as Post Consumer Recycling (PCR). 

“This is the idea of the circular economy. Once enough materials are in the economy, there would be no further need for virgin resources to be sourced and used.

“How the word ‘recycled’ for plastics is being used these days, shows many variations. Very few of these achieve the goal of ‘recycled’ plastic that was used by consumers, then returned to plastic manufacturers. A lot of the time, the umbrella claim that marketers love to use, ‘Contains Recycled Plastic’ can be misleading to the consumer.”

Most plastic waste is not recycled but repurposed by other industries into lower grade applications such as roads, concrete, outdoor furniture. Ross says that what most consumers don’t understand however, is that repurposing does nothing to avoid plastics manufacturers using virgin stock to make their products. He says that most of Australia’s claimed 15 per cent ‘recycled plastic’ is more likely to be repurposed into other applications. Only a small amount follows the post-consumer path.

Post Industrial Consumer Recycling uses materials reclaimed during the manufacturing process.

Post Industrial Recycling (PIR) is another term, where material is reclaimed from the internal operations during the plastic manufacturing process and is re-ground back into a form where it can be fed back into production operations. 

Industry has rightly been doing this for years to save costs. But now with the spotlight on recycled material, Ross says Post Industrial Recycling is being claimed under the ‘Contains Recycled Plastics’ umbrella. This leads consumers to believe their plastic items are made from recycled items claimed back from plastic waste streams. To further complicate the use of the terms ‘recycling’ and the ‘circular economy’, the government target is for products to contain some designated percentages of recycled material. 

In Australia, about four million tonnes of plastic items a year are imported. Australia doesn’t have the manufacturing capacity to meet all of this demand, even if high grade recycled material from Australian waste was available. 

“Most of these plastic items are imported, and if they are made overseas from overseas sourced recycled material they can still be labelled in Australia as contains recycled content,” Ross says. “It’s furthering the circular economy at a global level, which is still a good practice, but it’s doing nothing to address Australia’s waste plastic problem. 

Overseas recycled content exported to Australia.

“Given the increasing demand for products made from Post-Consumer Recycled material, we need to be using an international oversight authority such as the Global Recycle Standard (GRS), that certifies the Post-Consumer Recycled claim made by these manufacturers to avoid greenwashing.”

Ross says that for transparency there needs to be requirements on any claim of ‘contains recycled content’. He believes these should be labelled as recycled with Post Industrial Recycled plastic or Post-Consumer Recycled plastic; detail what per cent is recycled plastic and whether it’s domestic or foreign sourced material.

“Currently, the government goals are 50 per cent recycled content but there is no definition on what that 50 per cent recycled material is,” Ross says. “Standard and transparent definitions would go a long way to driving meaningful recycling in Australia, avoid consumer confusion and greenwashing.” 

For more information, visit: www.biogone.com.au

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