Climate and Nature

How can we responsibly source post-consumer recycled plastic?

Bales of plastic waste are piled up at Lebanon Waste Management's sorting and recycling facility in Bauchrieh, Lebanon, September 8, 2022. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah

Post-consumer recycled plastic must be ethically sourced. Image: REUTERS/Issam Abdallah

Barak Ekshtein
Chief Executive Officer, Tontoton
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  • As the use of recycled materials is normalised, we must examine its source and ask who is collecting it, in what conditions is it collected and what are the environmental and social impacts of collection?
  • The lack of data and transparency surrounding post-consumer recycled plastic and other materials leads to irresponsible sourcing.
  • Ethically sourcing post-consumer recycled plastic is crucial to addressing the plastic crisis and achieving a more sustainable future.

The lack of data and transparency surrounding post-consumer recycled plastic and other materials leads to irresponsible sourcing, but third-party audited protocols used in Ocean Bound Plastic (OBP) collection and plastic credit systems may offer a solution.

As businesses focus more on corporate social responsibility, recycling has emerged as the industry norm in many sectors, especially fashion, textiles and food and beverage. This is a step in the right direction, but using recycled materials does not solve the entire problem.

A significant portion of a company’s environmental footprint appears in the sourcing and production of materials. This includes the collection of plastic waste used in its products, an area where companies have least control. While they can ensure good working conditions from the production stage onwards (set forth by social standards such as BSCI and Sedex), they rarely control raw material sourcing.

The sourcing of recyclable plastic must be done responsibly. To claim ethical sourcing, companies must do more than merely collect valuable plastic to use in their products. The treatment of workers and the well-being of marginalised communities must be considered too.

But how can companies ensure that their recycled raw materials are responsibly sourced? Protocols set forth by third-party plastic credit auditors might offer a framework for responsible sourcing of mismanaged plastic waste as a raw material.

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The problem with recycled plastic sourcing

Industries, such as fashion and food and beverage, report a high percentage of recycled materials in their products. Furthermore, governing entities, such as the EU, require a percentage of recycled materials, including post-consumer materials, in certain products. The post-consumer recycled plastics market is likely to grow from $15.42 billion in 2021 to $22.37 billion by 2028, at an impressive CAGR of 5.38% during the forecast period.

Informal waste pickers are the main collectors of post-consumer recycled plastic. They work in deplorable, unsafe conditions gathering valuable materials to send to primary and secondary collectors. Those collectors then sort and grade the plastic and send it to recyclers. Hard-to-recycle plastic is typically left in open dumping grounds.

This unregulated practice encourages child labour, health hazards and high-risk activities, all for very low pay for the informal waste pickers. Marginalised communities, including children, live and work on dump sites picking up valuable materials. Without regulations, members of marginalised communities live in poverty in hazardous conditions, while recycling centres and companies using post-consumer recycled plastics and other materials turn a profit.

Developing countries with limited infrastructure in solid waste management and a lack of waste segregation systems at source depend on informal waste pickers to resource recovery from waste. Their efforts and risks are not recorded or monitored in the context of recycling industries.

This reveals significant gaps in the collection of recyclable plastic, including:

• The lack of collection and treatment of non-recyclable, low-value plastic

• The lack of transparency of sources

• The lack of basic rights and fair working conditions for the informal waste sector

• The potential for child labour to be used

To fill these gaps, responsible sourcing must include the collection of low-value plastic alongside value materials. Beyond collection, it must also support the community members from which the plastic is sourced. Without guidelines and an audited, controlled procedure, companies cannot ensure that these gaps are filled. Until they fill these gaps, it will be challenging to claim responsible sourcing of their post-consumer recycled plastic materials.

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The source of post-consumer recycled material

Sourcing of materials goes beyond extraction. Take the coffee industry, coffee retailers cannot claim responsible sourcing unless their coffee beans come from a certified environmental and fair trade source. The communities from which the beans are sourced must benefit from the collection of the beans, rather than be harmed by it.

Other industries require certification from established third-party entities before they can claim responsibility. For instance, the paper and timber industry often use the FSC and the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) standards to ensure responsible sourcing of timber and to contribute to the sustainable management of forests. The same needs to be required of value post-consumer plastic sourcing.

Responsible ethical post-consumer plastic sourcing must include:

• Ethical management of waste collectors

• A comprehensive collection of all types of plastic

• Sustainable plastic waste treatment and development of next-life solutions for hard-to-recycle plastics

Companies that prioritise ethical sourcing in post-consumer recycled plastic help reduce pollution and protect the environment, while also improving the lives of those involved in this process and providing consumers with an ethically-sound product.

How to determine your responsibility

Responsible ethical sourcing of post-consumer recycled plastic starts with knowing where that plastic comes from. Your company must consider how much responsibility it takes for non-recyclable plastic and high-value plastic collection.

Conducting a full assessment of a company's plastic footprint is an important first step in reducing the environmental impacts of plastic use. This helps the company understand the sources and amount of plastic used, identify areas for improvement and set targets for reducing plastic use and waste.

Calculating your responsibility doesn’t have to be complicated. If 40% of your plastic comes from post-consumer sources, then you should take responsibility for an equal amount of non-recyclable plastic from mismanaged sources. Your company can determine its plastic footprint through a certified third-party plastic audit system, such as CDP.

The state of waste management in ASEAN countries

Many communities in ASEAN countries provide the source for plastic materials that is later recycled and used in products. To understand how we might support plastic waste sources, we must understand the state of waste management.

Within rural communities in many ASEAN countries there are efforts to formalise waste management, including plastic waste collection, but these depend on private waste management companies and the service must be ordered and paid for by individual households.

In many of these communities, households can not afford to pay for waste collection or attach no importance to it. So, the available formal waste management systems go unused.

For plastic collection and separation to occur in these areas an incentive is needed. The rise of recycled plastic and other materials has increased the rate of value waste collection, but it still leaves a huge percentage of mismanaged plastic waste in the environment, where it causes local health issues and often ends up as marine plastic.

As consumers, governments and investors pay more attention to the social and environmental impact of the products they buy and the companies they invest in, ethical sourcing in post-consumer plastic, including the collection of hard-to-recycle plastic, is crucial to addressing the plastic crisis and achieving a more sustainable future.

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