According to a study in the peer reviewed journal Science Advances, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that have been produced globally to date, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority is accumulating in landfills or leaking into the natural environment as litter. This means, at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.
Much of the growth in plastic production is destined for single-use packaging applications, and according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 95% of plastic packaging material value, around $100 billion per year globally, is being lost as it is not recycled but incinerated or landfilled1. In addition, 98 percent of plastic packaging today continues to be made from fossil fuel or ‘virgin’ plastic polymers in the absence of suitable recycled materials.
Brands and their packaging supply chains are under significant pressure from a range of sources. NGO and consumer lobbying, the implementation of extended producer responsibilities, new plastic packaging taxes emerging around the world, and shortages of suitable post-consumer recyclate (‘PCR’) to replace their use of virgin plastics are all creating a laser focus on appropriate plastics use and adoption of circular economy supply chains.
To date, traditional recycling technologies have often been unable to turn mixed plastic waste streams into acceptable and commercially valuable post-consumer recyclate, of good enough quality to be used in much needed food-contact packaging applications. The food and drink industry today represents over 50% of all packaging volume demand, creating a significant challenge for brands being pressed on their packaging sustainability performance.
Greenback Recycling Technologies (Greenback), a London headquartered advanced recycling technology company is focused on creating certified circular solutions for plastic waste. Recognizing that the world is facing a plastic waste crisis and that there is an urgent need to reform today’s systems for recycling, the company is working with a number of world-leading consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to address these challenges head on. Philippe von Stauffenberg, Greenback CEO, stated: “It is now clear that the shift to a circular economy will create new markets and new opportunities for players with technologies and business models that realise value from the plastics recycling market opportunity, but there are some significant challenges ahead.”
Ensuring a Transparent Circular Supply Chain
One of the critical challenges for CPG companies attempting to solve their plastics issues lies in securing legitimate sources of clean, recycled plastics. Being able to verify the provenance of materials – from the original point where the waste is collected – is key, especially when fraud is likely to escalate as recycled material prices climb. Fraud is also increasingly prevalent when material shipments are operating across international borders. With environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities becoming critical differentiators for leading CPGs, ensuring full traceability and confidence in materials is a number one objective for many companies.
To address this challenge, Greenback has developed a Circularity Platform that improves upon current audit-based methods to certify proof of provenance and material value, using a combination of artificial intelligence and IoT gathered evidence, all backed up on Blockchain to provide additional security. This evidence includes camera images, weigh scale data, smart contracts, and advanced analysis of waste types, including AI recognition. Initially focused on the specific problem of plastic waste, working with any type of recycling technology, the platform could be used to ‘circularise’ other value chains including ingredients for food products and is currently being piloted in Mexico, where a first pilot project is underway with a leading global consumer goods brand.
Delivering On a Commitment to Fairness
Of course, the reality of the waste collection process in many emerging and transitional economies is not front of mind when western companies are considering sourcing of recycled plastics. Millions of people worldwide make a living from collecting, sorting, recycling and selling materials that society has thrown away. In some countries, waste pickers provide the only form of solid waste collection, providing widespread public benefits.2
Waste pickers contribute to local economies, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. While recognition for their contributions is growing in some countries, they often face low social status, poor living and working conditions, and get little support from local governments. Increasingly, they also face challenges due to competition for lucrative waste from corporate entities. When the demand for recycled materials climbs, as countries seek to drive circular economy principles, the picker plays a key role in enabling worldwide supply chains. With circa $50 billion being spent per year today by CPG companies on post-consumer recycled materials, and targets set for around 30% of plastic packaging to come from certified PCR in the near future, the pressure is on to drive fairness and value into the collection process.
Greenback’s plan is to deliver collection and recycling plants distributed close to the waste sources themselves. This helps local economies extract value from the waste and the combination of local collection, sorting and recycling will help to reduce plastic pollution, water usage, resource depletion and CO2 emissions into the bargain. On top of this, fair distribution of value along the supply chain is a key driver of the business.
Von Stauffenberg comments: “By gathering waste from public spaces and landfills, waste pickers divert a significant quantity of materials from the waste stream. A 2007 study3 found waste pickers recovered approximately 20 per cent of all waste material in three of six cities studies. It also discerned that just 80,000 people were responsible for recycling about 3 million tonnes of waste per year across those cities. “These are astounding numbers and prove why waste pickers are so important to a world intending to deliver the circular economy. If the recycling industry is to innovate and move forward in solving the plastics waste challenge, recognising the critical role these people play in collection through fair pay and conditions has to be the way forward.”
As brands and retailers aim to deliver full transparency on their supply chain practices and packaging converters seek to create plastic food packaging with proven and traceable recycled content, attempting to only organically grow and extend current recycling infrastructures would be foolish. New innovative thinking is required to deliver the scale, provenance and professionalism the waste collection and recycling industry requires on a global scale.
Greenback is implementing a new model with a decentralised network of advanced recycling plants near the sources of plastic waste, which it buys from local collectors. It utilises the collection infrastructure in place and combines it with advanced digital technologies to provide certified feedstock for the production of food-grade plastic packaging at scale.
Is this the holy grail for development of recycled food-grade plastics? It is certainly one option that may solve many of the issues faced in the plastics recycling industry today. Microwave induced pyrolysis technology can recycle mixed plastics, including multilayer flexible packaging and aluminium laminates, that are the bane of traditional recyclers’ life. The plants are scalable and quick to commission – important considering the escalation of focus on the environment by governments around the world – and a single module can process 2.5kt per annum of hard-to-recycle plastic waste. With plastics made from Pyrolysis Oil offering the same physical and mechanical properties as food-grade virgin plastics, Greenback is excited about the potential of the technology and awaits the outcome of its first project in Latin America.
For more information, visit www.greenback.earth.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation – The New Plastics Economy Report p.17
The Economics of the Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management – https://www.giz.de/en/downloads/giz2011-cwg-booklet-economicaspects.pdf