The secret sauce to recycling plastic: traceability

Recycled plastic has trust issues. Better traceability systems are needed to weed out fraud from the post-consumer plastic trade and fairly reward the people who collect trash for a living.

Edna Ablazo, collection member, the Philippines
Edna Ablazo is collection members working with social fintech Plastic Bank in Cabuyao, Laguna, the Philippines. Collection members are rewarded when they hand over their plastic at a collection branch, and receive a bonus when their bounty is turned into plastic pellets and fed back into the circular economy. Image: Plastic Bank

As packaged goods companies struggle to meet high-profile commitments to reduce their dependence on oil-derived virgin plastic and use more recycled polymers in their products, the pressure is building on the plastics value chain to prove where the materials they use came from.

Big consumer brands like Coca-Cola, Mars and Unilever have pledged to increase the amount of recycled content they use to make beverage containers and detergent bottles to more than a quarter by 2025. The European Union is also expected to introduce a law that year that mandates all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) drink bottles sold in the EU to contain 25 per cent recycled content.

However, tracing post-consumer plastic back to source has been approached from numerous angles by different players in an ecosystem that is highly fragmented, especially in emerging markets where waste management systems – if there are any – rely on the informal sector.

Challenges remain in tracking the origin of a discarded plastic bottle or sachet, and instead bring to question whether the recycled material has indeed been retrieved from the environment and – as brands claim – benefits the estimated 20 million people in Asia who eke out a living collecting trash.

The low price of oil, for one, has reportedly tempted manufacturers to sell cheaper virgin plastic as 100 per cent post-consumer content. Legal battles have also erupted over claims that plastic trash collected from beaches and waterways and sold to brands is being dumped instead of recycled, while documentaries have disproven claims made by high-profile brands that the plastic they use was sourced from the ocean.

Slogans are not enough. People who put their trust in purpose-driven brands want to see evidence.

Rene Guarin, vice president, Asia Pacific, Plastic Bank

Leaky supply chain

Transparency issues in the plastic value chain signal the need for a system that tracks waste from its origin to the moment it is recycled, so that brands can avoid greenwashing their sustainability claims.

Investors, too, need to know that they are investing in responsible supply chains that protect against fraud and double-counting – that is, collection efforts that are counted numerous times in different systems, which lead to artificially inflated claims.

Ideally, the traceability of plastic waste should start at the point of manufacture, using some form of digital barcode that stays with the product over its entire lifecycle, says Savera Weerasinghe, formerly a part of the UNDP Global Plastics Taskforce, and a consultant on plastic circularity in Asia Pacific. 

This has been trialled, and the EU plans to roll out a “product passport” that provides data on the raw material used to make post-consumer waste easier to recycle.

For such a system to work, the technology must be useable in any country where plastic waste ends up and is accessible for the informal waste sector – and that requires harmonised global standards, says Weerasinghe.

Such standards are being proposed in negotiations for the United Nations treaty on plastic pollution, which is set to be the first legally binding treaty to tackle plastic pollution.

“Traceability is critical. The problem is how to scale it,” she says.

Standards that assure recyclability across different types of plastic in different jurisdictions are needed to help raise the recycling rate for plastics, which has for years languished at around 9 per cent; some 72 per cent of plastic ends up in landfill or the environment.

Too many solutions?

Ellen Martin, chief impact officer at Circulate Capital, an investment firm that invests in recycling firms in South and Southeast Asia, says that a single, science-based standard developed by an independent body is needed to build a traceability system that all actors in the system can use.

The development of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, which hold producers accountable for their products’ entire life cycle, can help level the playing field, says Martin. This is playing out in markets such as India, where a single reporting system for recycled plastics has emerged since EPR was introduced in 2016.

With informal waste pickers responsible for collecting 58 per cent of collected and recycled plastic waste globally, a successful traceability system must integrate these individuals into its design. Too often, schemes focus on the needs of big brands and producers and neglect waste pickers, says Martin.

Bringing waste workers into a system that involves new technology and protocols requires investment and time, adds Martin, noting that waste pickers must also be properly incentivised to provide valuable data on waste and for their privacy to be protected in doing so. “Changing behaviour does not happen overnight. Traceability is not just about a tool or a standard,” she says.

Plastic Bank app

Plastic Bank introduced one of the first traceability systems to the recycled plastic value chain. Waste pickers record the collections they make on a blockchain-enabled platform. Image: Plastic Bank

Including waste workers

One of the earliest traceability systems in the plastic recycling sector was set up by Plastic Bank, a social fintech backed by consumer goods companies including US-based SC Johnson and Germany’s Henkel, that claims to have stopped 129.9 million kilograms of plastic from entering the ocean since its founding in 2013.

When a waste collector, which Plastic Bank refers to as a collection member, hands over post-consumer plastic at one of Plastic Bank’s collection points, the name of the collection member, the weight of his or her haul, and the type of plastic collected are recorded on a blockchain-based platform, with each transaction tracked in real time on a digital dashboard and immediately visible. 

Collection members are rewarded when they hand over their plastic at a collection branch, and receive a bonus when their bounty is turned into plastic pellets and fed back into the circular economy. Regular contributors who deliver consistent volumes of plastic are entitled to health and accident insurance, zero-interest loans and other social benefits. 

“Our blockchain-secured platform enables traceable collection, secures income, and verifies reporting,” says Rene Guarin, Plastic Bank’s Asia Pacific vice president, who notes that few players in the system have the technology to do traceability well, with Plastic Bank benefitting from being an early mover.

Companies can buy Plastic Bank’s “Social Plastic” for use in their products or packaging or purchase plastic credits to offset their plastic footprint and plug into EPR schemes such as in the Philippines, which has mandated large enterprises to recover 80 per cent of their plastic waste by 2028.

Plastic Bank helps companies comply with EPR laws by tracking the volume of plastic they collect and recover. As well as the Philippines, it also operates collection centres in Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, Egypt and Cameroon.

Though the organisation started out working with large companies, it now aims to help more smaller businesses reduce their plastic footprint – and prove that they’re doing so, Guarin says.

“Slogans are not enough,” says Guarin. “People who believe in purpose-driven brands want to see evidence. Traceability serves that purpose.”

Meanwhile, more needs to be done by governments to formalise waste pickers in Asia, says Annerieke Douma, director of programmes for The Circulate Initiative, a non-profit that is working to identify a traceability system that monitors waste worker human rights. Her organisation runs a programme called the Responsible Sourcing Initiative that aims to improve the lives of over 50,000 informal waste workers in India, Indonesia, Kenya and Vietnam by 2025. 

The more that waste workers are recognised, the easier it will be to protect them. But traceability systems must protect data privacy and also must be paid for – and brands, institutional funders and philanthropy are likely to foot the bill, says Douma.

“Companies that produce and use plastic have a responsibility to remediate human rights in the value chain. More funding will flow into the recycling sector once we can provide more transparency,” she says.

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →