Fabricating the loop: How fashion disrupts the circular plastics economy, and what the EU must do
04 May 2022 --- Yesterday, calls were made by beverage industry associations for EU policymakers to prevent “free-riding” fashion and automotive businesses from disrupting the circular economy by using the recycled plastic supply without contributing a fair share.
We speak with experts in the field on how upcoming amendments to the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) could fix this broken material loop.
The European beverage packaging industry currently receives roughly 30% of the recycled PET (rPET) on the market, despite supplying over 70% of the material. Despite being the main contributor of recycled plastic, the industry faces unfair market conditions due to the boom in rival sectors purchasing the material after processing.
In particular, fashion and automobile companies boost their environmental credentials by buying beverage packs produced by rPET, thereby creating an illusion of circularity for public relations purposes. As a result, the price of rPET has more than doubled over the past year.
UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe director general Nicholas Hodac tells PackagingInsights: “Using someone else’s recycled material – like the textile industry is doing with PET bottles – is not circularity. The recently released EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textile also recognizes this, stressing the need for fiber-to-fiber recycling to be promoted and stop the use of PET bottles.”
Breaking the plastics loop
Together with The European Fruit Juice Association, Natural Mineral Waters Europe, Changing Markets Foundation and Zero Waste Europe, UNESDA issued a statement demanding the European Commission (EC) guarantee “the “right of first refusal.”
This mechanism would grant F&B producers a priority option to buy recycled material produced from the packaging they put on the European market for reuse in new food-grade applications, explains Hodac.
“By facilitating the access to recycled material, this mechanism will allow beverage producers to achieve the recycled content targets included in the Single Use Plastics Directive (25% recycled PET by 2025 and 30% rPET by 2030).”
UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe is committed to going further and using 50% recycled content in its PET bottles by 2025, and by 2030, all PET bottles to be made from 100% recycled or renewable PET – where feasible.
“Those objectives, which go well beyond existing legislative targets, will be extremely challenging to reach if there is no mechanism guaranteeing our access to the recycled content issued from the packaging we put on the market,” explains Hodac.
Speeding up legislation
A major hurdle facing recyclers is the slow approval process operating in the EU, adds Hodac. Many facilities are ready to begin operating but remain unused as checks must be conducted on each line at every site, usually taking many months. This process will soon be sped up, but Hodac emphasizes the importance of creating legislation that would keep recyclates within the industry that produces and processes them.
“All industries need to invest in collecting their own products and then reusing those to make new products. EU policymakers should further promote closed-loop recycling by developing a harmonized definition of high-quality recycling in the EU PPWD and promoting as a priority the recycling into similar applications of the same quality.”
“Such legislative action will send a strong signal to all sectors to look at ways to invest in their own products’ recyclability and the recycling of their own materials, encouraging them to create their own loop rather than breaking others’ loops.”
“We are confident it is not too late, but it is now the right time to act.”
Out of fashion
The Changing Markets Foundation, which campaigns against unsustainable market practices, has researched how fashion industry brands are exploiting the beverage packaging industry to greenwash their garments.
Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director for the foundation, tells PackagingInsights of how a detailed analysis of 46 of the most transparent fashion brands – like Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Esprit and Patagonia – set targets for increasing the use of recycled synthetic fibers in their products, but none had goals to reduce overall synthetic use.
“Brands’ emphasis was squarely on recycled fiber from other waste – principally PET bottles – although some brands outlined initial policies to incorporate some fiber-to-fiber recycling,” explains Urbancic.
“Brands’ responses [to the research], and the information publicly available on their websites, clearly indicate that fashion brands are using and selling rPET as a perceived antidote to the fossil-fashion problem.”
“Where brands disclosed their main feedstock for recycled polyester, this was always PET bottles. Well over three quarters (85%) of the brands either said PET bottles were their main source of recycled polyester or mentioned PET bottles as their only recycled polyester feedstock. For example, Adidas said that, for polyester, feedstock predominantly comes from used PET bottles,” she continues.
The practice of making green claims on apparel that has not used fiber-to-fiber recycling is misleading consumers, says Urbancic.
“Such a practice is not in line with the circular model for PET bottles, which are fit for being kept in a closed-loop recycling system for food contact materials and are subject to extended producer responsibility obligations, including fees, with a view to meeting the objectives of the EU rules on single-use plastic products and on packaging.”
These claims face further challenges given the role of synthetic fibers in microplastic pollution. The EC will pay specific attention to this issue in upcoming initiatives such as the Green Claims Initiative, the review of the EU Ecolabel criteria for textiles and footwear, and the development of binding product-specific ecodesign requirements, she continues.
“The EC also encourages businesses to prioritize their efforts on fiber-to-fiber recycling and rather make claims on achievements to address this important challenge in closing the loop for textile products.”
“We would like to see this translated into real legislation, where no specific targets are set for rPET from plastic bottles and where the definition of high-quality (or closed-loop) recycling is established, and industry is encouraged to invest into such technologies, instead of downcycling.”
Like UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, Urbancic says she is confident these policy changes will be enacted in time for real change.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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