War on plastic waste faces setback as cost of recycled material soars

Jillian Ambrose
Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

The battle to reduce Europe’s plastic waste could become a quarter of a billion dollars more expensive every year as the cost of recycled plastic soars.

In recent months, the price of recycled plastic flakes, used to make goods from soft drink bottles to glitter, has become more expensive than virgin plastic for the first time.

For years the cost of making plastic products from recycled flakes was cheaper than relying on virgin plastics made using fossil fuels, meaning the sustainable option was an economic option too.

But according to experts it is now cheaper for major manufacturers to use new plastic.

A report from S&P Global Platts, a commodity market specialist, revealed that recycled plastic now costs an extra $72 (£57) a tonne compared with newly made plastic.

According to the analysts this trend is driven in part by the growing demand to include recycled plastics in new products. Meanwhile, new plastic is becoming cheaper to make due to a flood of petrochemicals production from the US driven by the shale gas boom.

They have warned that this could cost sustainable manufacturers across Europe an extra $250m a year.

Although many larger manufacturers would struggle to switch their machinery back to virgin plastics, smaller manufacturers may be forced to turn their backs on recycled plastic to keep costs down.

In a blow to the war on plastic this could mean the makers of clear plastic bottles and fruit punnets stoke demand for new fossil-fuel based plastic rather than reusing old recycled bottles.

Makers of plastic packaging are under pressure to use more recycled plastic to reduce the scourge of plastic pollution in the oceans.

Coca-Cola’s European business plans to cut the amount of virgin plastic used in its soft drink bottles to 50% within the next two years, and will change the colour of its Sprite bottles from green to clear to make sure 100% of its bottles can be reused.

The UK is planning to tax companies which don’t use at least 30% recycled plastic in their products, but until then it may be cheaper for companies to demand more new plastic to make their packaging.

Alongside a tax on virgin plastic use, experts are calling for the UK government to support plans to increase the amount of recycled plastic in the market.

This could mean incentives for new recycling plants, improving recycling facilities at a local council level, or importing recycled plastic flakes from Latin America.