Cheaper plastic set to test market’s ‘true commitment to sustainability’, warns report

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/stevanovicigor
©GettyImages/stevanovicigor

Related tags: Plastic bottles, Plastic, Recyclable materials, Recycling, Unilever

Lipton’s decision to switch to 100% recycled plastic in the Netherlands as it prepares to make all its bottles from recycled plastic by 2023 in Europe as a whole illustrates the industry’s commitment to plastic recycling. But a new report warns that the falling price of new plastic could test the resolve of food and drink companies to use recycled plastic.

Lipton Ice Tea will switch to bottles made from 100% recycled PET that are fully recyclable as of 2020 in the Benelux region, the company has said.

Lipton said that the new bottles -- made from the material R-PET, or recycled polyethylene terephthalate – will save 1,400 tonnes of new plastic per year and will contribute 40% less CO2 emissions than new plastic.

Lipton claimed it is the first soft drink brand in the Netherlands to offer circular packaging in such a large scale. The announcement is part of Lipton’s sustainability strategy and its mission is to operate 100% circularly. Lipton plans to make all its bottles from recycled plastic by 2023 in Europe as a whole.

Last week its parent company Unilever - who owns the brand alongside PepsiCo - unveiled ambitious plans to cut plastic 50% by 2025​ and accelerate the use of recycled plastics across its product range.

Joost Houben, Marketing Director Refreshment Benelux, said: “We are proud that we can already announce that all plastic bottles from 2020 are 100% made of recycled plastic and fully recyclable. Lipton thus plays a pioneering role within the sector in the Netherlands and for Lipton worldwide. We also hope to inspire other brands and companies with this take major step in the short term in the field of sustainability. We can make the entire chain more sustainable if we do it together.”

Earlier this year Lipton stopped using plastic straws and lids in all cocktails and plastic stampers in the hospitality industry. Other innovations include the Lipton ‘festival bottle’​ which is made of 100% recycled plastic and is collected using a deposit scheme. After these bottles are returned they are turned into raw materials which can be used again for food packaging.

The war on plastic faces fresh test as price of new plastic falls

Lipton’s move comes as the war on plastic faces a fresh test. Europe leads the way in plastics recycling, according to a new analysis from S&P Global Platts​. However, its report warned that it’s now cheaper to buy new plastic to make drinks containers than it is to buy recycled material. This fact is set to test the market’s true commitment to sustainability, it said.

Plastics recycling's profile has been steadily growing, according to the report. It said 2018 was a pivotal year for the industry as legislation, industry initiatives and consumer awareness led to a focus on waste and recycling. “When it comes to developing recycling as a sustainable business, Europe leads the way,” ​it wrote. “Demand for recycled plastics over the longer term is expected to grow in part due to European Union policy initiatives to increase the recyclability and recycled content of packaging.”

However, while prices of recycled PET have traditionally held a wide and fairly steady discount compared to new plastic, this year has seen virgin PET resin prices sink, at first to parity with r-PET flake prices, and then below. “Virgin PET spot prices had not previously fallen as low as spot flake prices since S&P Global Platts first began assessing flake prices in February 2008.”

While the report doesn’t doubt rising demand for food-grade R-PET, it hinted that the parity in prices could make it difficult for companies to justify the cost of switching to recycled plastic.

“Converters have been eyeing the possibility of switching much of their flake buying capacity into cheaper virgin resin, for certain end uses such as sheet and film​,” it noted. “For sheet producers, this has begun to take place. For bottle producers, however, this is easier said than done.”​ The research quoted a business using recycled plastic that said: “It comes down to whether the consumer is really willing to pay substantially more for a 100% recycled bottle or not. There comes a price point at which it is not economically sustainable.”

The report added that “in the short term, the market’s true commitment to sustainability will be tested in the face of unfavorable economics​.”

Plastic prices

But many big brands have doubled down on recycled plastic

That said, the report questioned the ease with which companies can quickly switch their buying activities away from R-PET to virgin resin. “In part, this is down to the difficulty in running different blends of virgin resin and R-PET for individual packaging through existing machinery – which requires some level of packaging redesign.

“More importantly, it may prove difficult to reverse big brands’ decisions of increased recycled content, set to last over many decades, just because of poor economics over a relatively short time frame​.”

Despite these unfavorable economics, therefore, the food and drink industry remains positive about complying with recycled contents legislation, driving sustainability initiatives and building on current recycling rates, suggested S&P.

Further challenges for food and drink producers, added the report, include moving away from colored PET and sticking to clear packaging. Quoting Christian Crepet, executive director of Petcore, an industry body representing the whole PET value chain, colored packaging will simply not be accepted in years to come because people are aware now of the difficulties in recycling it. “Brands and consumers are recognizing the fact that the industry must return to clear packaging in order to boost recyclability. Coca-Cola, for instance, is switching its Sprite branded bottles from light green to clear in order to boost recyclability and make it easier to incorporate 50% R-PET in their manufacture.”

Plastic’s future is clear

Another challenge is moving to single polymer packaging to avoid mixing different polymers. In the regard, the PET bottle industry is well placed to deliver on targets, according to Crepet. “The tray industry, however, has further to go. A key issue in this market is the use of mixed polymers in packaging, with around 50% of plastic tray packaging using a mix of different polymers that makes them difficult to recycle.”

There is progress being made, however, to move towards single polymer trays. Crepet said that in a few years around 75% of plastic trays will be a monomer material and that chemical recycling could provide a solution to the remaining 25%.

Collection rates have improved but still have further to go

A final challenge highlighted in S&P’s report is the need to improve collection rates across Europe. Again, this is being well addressed in Europe, it said. In the UK, the introduction of a deposit return scheme as a means of increasing collection rates was proposed last year. According to the UK government this could significantly increase recycling rates from around 57% to between 80% and 90%.

“In continental Europe, many countries already have successful deposit return schemes and there are plans, particularly in Germany, to increase their scope further by accepting a wider range of plastic packaging.”

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