Plastics in packaging are actively being targeted in a bid to prevent them from ending up in the oceans, landfills and dumpsites. To stem this flow, we must either stop consuming plastic or actively ensure that plastic once used is captured in a way that does not harm the environment. In recent years, there has been a sizable focus on the second effort, with efforts to boost recycling awareness, as well as more resources being deployed towards the recycling and recovery of packaging.
For some plastic types such as PET bottles, a tenuous value chain exists in developing economies, where the informal sector collects these materials for a small price, and it is then processed into flakes or pellets to be reintroduced into the economy. In developing nations in South and South-East Asia, informal collection systems and low tech recycling technologies have been the mainstay of recycling not only domestically of post-consumer plastic, but also of plastic waste imported from other countries. As countries develop and become richer, however, there is less incentive to collect these materials unless there is an increase in the their re-use value as well.
Flexible and multi-layer packaging
As more and more packaging manufacturers are called upon to take responsibility for their packaging, many are turning to the existing plastic recycling value chains in developing economies to collect and process their post consumer packaging. The additional resources deployed for increased collection are great for higher value plastics. However, existing systems are challenged when it comes to flexible and multi-layer packaging, and therefore these cannot be readily leveraged by manufacturers. The reasons can be broken down according to the typical steps of a recycling value chain:
1. Disposal: When disposed or littered into the environment, flexible and multi-layer packaging is harder to retrieve and pick out given the sizes (generally smaller, hard to grip) and weights (easily blown away in gusts of wind). When these are disposed mixed with other wet or unsanitary waste, it is both difficult and sometimes unsafe to retrieve them out of the mix. They must ideally be collected separately, or at worst mixed with other clean and dry plastic waste. This requires compliance from the consumer/disposer, and that is very rarely implemented.
2. Collection: The waste collectors, formal or informal, must be properly incentivised to ensure collection of the flexible and multi-layer packaging. This incentive must cover the additional effort of collecting small and scattered pieces of packaging, the lack of a market - since very few technologies accept flexible packaging - and the challenging logistics of such packaging - generally, these are difficult to store and challenging to pack down. When collected as part of mixed plastic waste, such packaging also requires a sorting facility where it can be separated, weighed and stored for transportation. This effort must also take into account the opportunity cost of other materials that have a higher market value.
3. Transportation and Logistics: Light-weight packaging must be stuffed into sacks with considerable effort and compacted and stored to arrive at a reasonable tonnage. This takes up valuable space at limited sorting facilities. The cost of transportation to a processing facility, regardless of processing technology, is another additional cost, and one that must be borne by the technology provider or a program sponsor, unlike in the case of other high value plastics, the low market price for this material will surely not cover transportation costs.
4. Recovery and Recycling: Technologies to process flexible packaging are still in development, have specific feedstock requirements and sometimes additional costs to ensure that the feedstock meets this requirement. This includes cleaning and preprocessing at RDF facilities, cement kilns or pyrolysis plants. Feedstock that does not meet these requirements must be disposed safely to a landfill at the cost of the technology provider.
5. Administrative fees: Because flexible and multi-layer packaging do not have a natural market, each of the above steps must be initiated and managed by one or more agencies. To build transparency and accountability, these agencies must perform additional tasks of data collection, service coordination, transfer of funds, and data collection and reporting.
Despite these challenges, many efforts to collect and process flexibles and multi-layer packaging have been undertaken throughout the region. Notwithstanding these, however, the cost of recovering flexible and multi-layer packaging has been expensive, and has no profit margin associated with it.
Examples from the region
Plastic Credit Exchange in the Philippines collects flexible packaging for approximately 8-10 cents per kilogram. This is the minimum amount required to cover the cost of collection and transfer to a processing facility. In a study conducted in Thailand, the suggested monetary incentive for collection of flexible packaging by an existing provider was 16 cents per kilogram. In Myanmar, given the lower labour costs, the cost was lower at approximately 6 cents per kilogram. In Indonesia, programs and efforts have been carried out in a range 10-16 cents per kilogram depending on the nature of the effort.
The cost of recovery for Flexible and Multi-layer Packaging is not small. Creating an artificial market for these materials is the first step in ensuring collection and recovery – this artificial market must at minimum standardise the above listed costs at around 10 to 20 cents per kilo depending on the local context. Even where the monetary costs have been covered by a sponsor, each of the organisations engaged in the collection and processing of flexibles and multi-layer packaging have indicated the insufficiency of funds and continued challenges with implementation of these efforts.
The general challenges of waste collection and recycling management in developing countries are a hurdle for even the high value waste materials. Without economic and other support, it is even more difficult for flexible packaging. Once a scalable collection model is established, additional technologies and solutions can be explored.