The broadcast of the Blue Planet II programme in 2017 was something of a game changer in the public’s perception of plastic. From being viewed as a useful, if slightly disinteresting material, plastic almost overnight became universally demonised. Leaving aside the many inaccuracies and misconceptions that continue to surround the material as a result, one challenge that has undoubtedly arisen is the need to significantly increase recycling rates, setting a challenge for industry to effectively deal with the wide range of plastic polymer materials being collected.

Often recycling is framed in terms of reusing materials to make the same products they originally were, such as bottles or other packaging. However, an additional focus is now needed to create long lasting, high-material-demand applications which can overcome the challenges within our recycling infrastructure.

How did we get here?

The breath-taking ocean vistas of Blue Planet II launched the role of plastic into the public discourse like never before, focusing on the harm done by waste plastic once it enters the environment. There is therefore an urgent need to ensure that such waste is prevented and captured effectively, and that the material can be properly reused through effective recycling.

Legislation in certain countries is also driving this. The German Packaging Act passed by the Bundestag in early 2019, for example, requires “mandatory participation” from companies in the collection and recycling of the packaging they produce. Similarly, in the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is currently conducting consultations on reforming the existing packaging producer responsibility system.

Recycle more to save the planet!

At the same time, discussions on recycling have widened to focus more on the need for a circular economy, where the lifecycle of a material is extended for as long as possible, with recovery, recycling and regeneration at the end of each service cycle.

Low worldwide recycling figures are often touted as proof that the current recycling system is a failure, with the National Geographic quoting recycling rates as low as 9%. Whilst these figures can be misleading, often including countries with nothing like the necessary infrastructure to handle plastic waste (the UK’s recycling rate in comparison is 32% according to the British Plastics Federation), it is clear that a great deal more can be done to increase the rates of recycling.

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