In 2017, Flight Plastics established the first closed-loop mechanical recycling system in Aotearoa New Zealand for PET (#1), producing clear recycled PET (rPET) containers that, due to food hygiene standards, include a thin layer of virgin PET as the lining. The rPET containers produced by Flight Plastics are themselves recyclable several times via the same recycle loop. Plastic drink bottles are the main use of PET, and consequently make up the main volume of post-consumer PET recycled material collected and sorted in Aotearoa New Zealand. Flight uses this material to produce food-grade rPET trays and containers, which directly reduces the volume of virgin PET previously imported for this purpose. The year Flight Plastics established onshore processing for PET, more than 17,500 tonnes of virgin PET was imported into Aotearoa New Zealand, with roughly 5,000 tonnes of clear PET collected for recycling. Flight’s start-up year processed limited volume during plant commissioning and trials, but the following year the amount of virgin resin imports had decreased by roughly 1,600 tonnes. This was the first-time virgin PET imports had fallen for more than a decade, and demonstrates the clear and immediate impact of onshore waste plastics recycling and reuse. Flight expects to process close to 5,000 tonnes of rPET in 2020 and a similar volume of virgin PET import reduction will occur accordingly (subject to overall market demand).

The Flight Plastics plant is now recycling almost all of the clear post-consumer PET currently collected and available in the market (some is still exported) and has spare capacity to recycle at least 50% more before further capacity is required. As a result, it can be said that Aotearoa New Zealand now has infrastructure to deal with all of the PET being recycled currently, and has the capacity to deal with a growing volume of PET as rates of recycling increase as expected with the implementation of a container deposit scheme (CDS), and as businesses shift away from problematic plastics such as PVC (#3) and PS (#6) to this more sustainable plastic.

In future, recycling methods for this material may need to be able to generate bottles. New infrastructure is being considered for Flight’s plant to achieve this, but in the immediate term all of the available material is being fully utilised in a genuine circular economy loop for containers. PACT Group in Auckland are also establishing PET reprocessing capabilities and will convert 10,000 tonnes of PET a year into food packaging, including meat and bakery trays, but will supplement with imported rPET material pending availability of local recycled PET.

PET bottles inline for recycling at the Flight Plastics plant. Credit: Flight Plastics.

Lessons from Flight Plastics’ experience can guide efforts to establish onshore solutions for HDPE (#2) and PP (#5). A key challenge faced while establishing onshore reprocessing capabilities is the low recycling rate, which limits the amount of recycling that can be undertaken. For example, less than 30% of imported PET resin is recycled – meaning that a large percentage of this valuable, recyclable plastic is still ending up in the landfill or the environment. In order to make reprocessing economic, the design, disposal, collection and sorting methods need to be improved to increase recycling rates. Because the investment returns in recycling are generally very low, companies making large and long-term recycling investments face considerable risk in a volatile and competitive market. This is heightened by the local market having to compete against imported recycled resin. Regulation to incentivise the use of recycled content would strengthen the markets for these materials. If further incentives exist for local recycled content, it would do more to strengthen the local recycling industry. Lastly, the reprocessing infrastructure is only part of the set-up cost. It is important to factor in extra costs up and downstream of the recycling process when establishing and funding new infrastructure to develop onshore closed-loop solutions for HDPE (#2) and PP (#5).

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