Recycled PET “as expensive as gold” says UNESDA in appeal to EU for priority access
14 Sep 2022 --- Recycled PET (rPET) is becoming as rare and expensive as gold or white truffles, according to UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe. The association is making renewed calls for the EU to grant priority access to rPET for bottlers, arguing that the beverage packaging industry contributes the vast majority of Europe’s supply but is being priced out by high demand.
EU bottles have to meet mandatory recycled content and collection targets and have made considerable investments in the recyclability, collection, and recycling of their packaging. Deposit return schemes (DRS) and other bottle-to-bottle systems mean PET beverage packs are some of the most circular products on the market.
However, with a minimum recycled content target of 50% by 2025, and the EU pledging to enforce targets, UNESDA fears many companies will be forced to close as rPET prices continue to rise. In the past year, the material has more than doubled in price as other industries, notably fashion, have started to buy up stocks in their own environmental efforts.
Nicholas Hodac, director general of UNESDA, tells PackagingInsights that the EU must enforce a right of first refusal for PET bottlers in Europe – a system where those that contribute to the supply get a priority on demand. However, the EU does not want to interfere in the free market, believing that allowing unregulated competition will bring more capital into recycling.
“This is no longer a free market since the adoption of the Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) because the EC has intervened in the market to introduce mandatory collection and recycled content targets,” says Hodac.
“We, therefore, believe that as soon as some economic operators have mandatory legal requirements which depend on the availability of certain materials of a certain quality, it is important to have mechanisms that will actually enable/support those economic operators.”
Lack of EU oversight
The rPET price premium over virgin PET continuously reaches new records, notes UNESDA. In Europe, rPET is reported at a 30%-plus premium over virgin.
The rPET price is currently defined by what the highest bidder is ready to pay, with companies from the food, textile and automotive sectors (among others) competing against one another.
While this situation may please the recyclers, it cannot be seen as fair that many businesses with recycled content targets cannot access the necessary material to comply with their legal obligations or that the current pricing favors downcycling over closed-loop recycling, says UNESDA.
“There is not even a review mechanism in the EU SUPD that will actually allow an assessment of whether or not the targets are achievable,” stresses Hodac.
“Giving the possibility to sectors without mandatory legal requirements to buy the materials needed from the sectors with legal obligations, without any right of first refusal, is just unfair.”
“The rPET coming from our bottles is the only material we can use to meet our recycled content targets under the SUPD, but due to a lack of legal mechanism guaranteeing access, many companies in our sector are prevented from accessing it (while they financed the collection of the packaging turned into rPET).”
The fashion problem
One of the major reasons rPET is booming in price is that many fashion brands are using the material to drive their own green claims. However, practically no textiles ever make it into the recycling stream, meaning that everything the fashion industry uses comes out of the beverage industry’s loop.
“We understand the appeal of the rPET coming from our bottles: it is already collected and is highly qualitative. However, the current issues related to rPET access would be considerably reduced if all sectors would invest in collecting and recycling their own products (closed-loop recycling),” says Hodac.
“The fashion industry is not the only one to blame, but it is definitely one of the largest contributors to the problem.”
Hundreds of SMEs in Europe are now at risk as mandatory recycled content targets loom.
“What we are currently witnessing is just the tip of the iceberg, and things will get even worse as we approach the first deadlines of the mandatory legal requirements for rPET.”
Ultimately, Hodac says the issue of priority access is not high on the EC’s agenda.
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