As part of a growing movement to reduce the amount of plastic ending up in landfills, hundreds of the largest companies in the world are making commitments to be a part of the solution. One piece of these commitments to address plastic waste is to use more recycled content in products and packaging. While this is a great step in the journey towards making the plastic economy circular, it raises one major question: where will brands source enough recycled plastics to make these commitments a reality?
Growing Commitments to Reach a Circular Economy for Plastics
In recent years, the increasing public attention to climate issues is driving urgency around plastics recycling and putting pressure on all industries to take action. It’s become clear that the best way to reduce plastics waste is to move towards a circular economy, meaning that rather than sending plastic to landfills after use, we find a way to reuse and recycle it instead. Businesses and corporations will play a large part in the success of making plastics circular.
The New Plastics Economy is an initiative that emerged to help drive the plastics system to become circular by bringing together key stakeholders across industries. As part of this initiative, the New Plastics Economy launched the Global Commitment to mobilize businesses and governments to commit to changing the way we produce, use, and reuse plastic. To date, more than 500 signatories, including businesses, governments, and other organizations, have joined the Global Commitment. The commitment challenges businesses to meet the following goals:
- Eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastic use
- Ensure 100 percent of plastic can be reused, recycled, or composted
- Boost the use of recycled plastic to keep plastics in the economy
The Global Commitment has an ambitious timeline with the goal of addressing plastic waste at its source by 2025. As we near the end of 2021, some progress has been made, however, there is still a long way to go in the journey to a circular economy of plastics.
The Reality of Achieving Recycled Content Goals
In the latest progress update, the 2020 Global Commitment progress report notes that while recycled content in packaging grew by 22% year on year, they are seeing reduction targets emerge in different formats, not always covering the entire scope of a business and sometimes expressed in relative rather than absolute terms, meaning that it is unclear what actual reduction, if any, will be delivered.
Some of these reduction targets have come from consumer goods companies and retailers who have committed to increasing recycled content in their packaging to an average of 25% by 2025, compared with the current global average of just 2%. While this seems like a reasonable goal, there is one issue that needs to be addressed – where will all the recycled content come from? Currently, the U.S. recycling rate is just 8.4%, according to U.S. EPA statistics. In addition, current projections suggest that by 2030, there will be market demand for 5 to 7.5 million metric tons of recycled plastic content for use in creating new products.
Looking at the current state of recycling in the U.S. as well as the notes from the 2020 Global Commitment progress report, one thing is clear: before companies can meet their ambitious recycling goals, a solution needs to be found for sourcing enough recycled plastics.
Bridging the Gap with Healthcare Plastics
The good news is, there are solutions available! Healthcare plastics represent a valuable, high-quality plastic feedstock that can be circulated back into the production of goods and can help companies reach their 25% recycled content goals.
Today, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 tons of high-quality, non-hazardous, medical plastic is entering our municipal waste stream every day on a global basis and only 14-18% of that plastic waste is recycled. Recycling and reusing these plastics would greatly reduce the amount of plastic waste produced by the healthcare industry and help bridge the gap between the current state of recycled content goals and achieving those goals by 2025.
While many healthcare plastics can be recycled through traditional mechanical recycling processes, there is a significant stream of composite healthcare packaging materials that cannot be readily recycled through traditional recycling processes. Advanced recycling technologies such as purification, depolymerization, and conversion technologies already exist to repurpose complex plastic waste streams into valuable materials which can be used in new products and packaging. The advanced recycling industry is growing rapidly with significant domestic and international investments being made in recycling technologies and facilities.
And while the application of these technologies to healthcare plastics is still a work in progress, early insights from our recent advanced recycling research indicate that composite healthcare plastics are well-suited and can be a valuable feedstock for advanced recycling processes. We believe that advanced recycling is a complementary solution to mechanical recycling for a mixed stream of healthcare plastics.
Using HPRC’s recycling vendor directory can help healthcare facilities and recyclers, both traditional mechanical and advanced recyclers, build new relationships and collaborations as we all work together to increase the percentage of healthcare plastics being recycled.
In closing, the healthcare industry is a large, untapped source of quality plastics that can meet the rising demands for recycled plastic materials. Working in partnership, the healthcare industry and businesses committed to boosting the use of recycled plastics can help each other further their shared mission of creating a circular economy of plastics.