What does it mean to recycle plastic bottles? With Antonino Furfari

Antonino Furfari is the managing director of Plastic Recyclers Europe (PRE), an association established in 1996 with the purpose of protecting and promoting the interests of plastics recyclers in Europe. More than 120 companies are a part of PRE to support the transition towards circular economy and harmonize the recycling standards across Europe. As for all our interviews, we first let him watch people’s testimonies and then asked him a few related questions. The video shows a selection of his answers, and you can read his full interview below.

20 Questions About Water: What’s your first reaction when you see these testimonies?

Antonino Furfari: We see that people speak positively about recycling. They have questions about how it works, how the finances work, what can be recycled, but overall people are willing to recycle, so it’s very positive.

 

Recycling means to reuse as much material as possible to avoid extracting more from the earth to create a closed loop of material

 

20QAW: When did we start recycling?

A.F.: Plastic recycling started with industrial scrap waste, which is easier to recycle and has a value. It started in the 1980s when companies provided B2B recycling. The legislation slowly evolved to focus more and more on household recycling – the waste we are producing as citizens -, which is now an essential aspect of recycling, with plastic bottles as well as various types of plastics like flexible films which can also be recycled now. Furthermore, the technology for collecting, sorting and recycling is developing at a rapid pace.

 

20QAW: In theory what does it mean to recycle?

A.F.: It means to reuse as much material as possible to avoid extracting more from the earth to create a closed loop of material. It shouldn’t be seen as a closed loop for each product, but for each material, which should be reused as much as possible.

 

What does it mean to recycle plastic bottles? Antonino Furfari

 

20QAW: Can you tell us more about the recycling process?

A.F.: Generally, the first step is to collect waste, which is the most important part to avoid littering. As a citizen, we must make sure we dispose of our plastic waste in the correct bins. It then goes to a sorting centre, which separates the different types of plastics. Once this step is complete, the waste is sent to a specialised recycler that only processes specific types of plastics. Through various recycling steps, this plant creates a new raw material from this waste. This involves breaking up the plastic into small pieces to clean it efficiently, melt it to filter any remaining impurities, and upgrade the material into a new raw material. Plastics can be recycled seven to ten times at 100%, but you never use 100%-recycled plastic into a single item. This is possible for most plastics. On the other hand, certain types of plastics, which are degradable, should end up in a specific stream for compostable plastics rather than recycling plants.

 

It is necessary to expand the availability of various sorting bins for plastics to be collected, sorted and turned into a new raw material.

 

20QAW: Why don’t we recycle more plastic bottles?

A.F.: There are two main factors. In Europe, the main one is the legislation, which only imposed a 22.5% recycling rate, which led the system to limit itself to this figure. However, for bottles you can reach a much higher recycling rate, and as citizens we must dispose of our bottles in the correct bins. If we put them in the incineration bin, it will be incinerated and will never be recycled. So it truly is a matter of properly sorting all our plastic waste.

 

20QAW: But do we always have the opportunity to do so?

A.F.: The system must adapt. For instance, on-the-go recycling is very difficult. Typically, only one general bin is available. It is therefore necessary to expand the availability of various sorting bins for plastics to be collected, sorted and turned into a new raw material.

 

20QAW: How can we push to make infrastructures recycle?

A.F.: In developing countries, the problem is that plastic waste has negative value, which makes it easier to discard into the environment than make the effort to process it in a clearly defined scheme. We therefore must create value into plastic waste, either by setting a value for plastic waste or finding various ways to fund the system to prevent littering.

 

What does it mean to recycle plastic bottles? Antonino Furfari

 

20QAW: How to encourage people to recycle more?

A.F.: I believe people are willing to recycle more, it only depends on providing them with the right information to guide them into where they should discard their plastic and creating the right value chain to recycle plastics.

 

Recycling is part of the answer. The first step is to reduce the use of plastics whenever possible, and reuse plastics when we can do so.

 

20QAW: And who should encourage people to recycle more?

A.F.: Encouragement should come from the plastic value chain, the core industry: brands, plastic producers, recyclers and converters of plastics, and the authorities. They must address citizens and convey a positive message about plastics. In concrete terms: “Give us your plastics and we’ll recycle it!”

 

20QAW: How far recycling can be the solution to plastic waste?

A.F.: Recycling is part of the answer. The first step of course is to reduce the use of plastics whenever possible, and reuse plastics when we can do so. But afterwards, you must be able to recycle this plastic. All of these initiatives must be integrated into a comprehensive model, and the industry must have a clear vision to make sustainable plastics in the near future.

 

20QAW: What are the innovations developed to reduce the use of plastic and packaging?

A.F.: In the last five years, we’ve witnessed an important change in sorting practices and technologies. We previously relied on hand pickers, whereas today we use automated machines to sort plastics very efficiently. These technologies are steadily improving to increase sorting precision, which in turn increases the overall quality. It is therefore essential to invest in infrastructure that can sort out separate streams of plastics. Innovation occurs mostly on the design of products we are using as consumers. For instance, packaging used to preserve goods is made of numerous types of plastics and various other materials, which makes it very difficult to recycle. Technological developments can help us overcome this challenge and I’m sure that in the coming years we’ll see more and more recyclable plastics that can preserve the packed good and be easily recycled at the same time, helping us close the loop.

 

20QAW: How do you imagine the plastic and recycling situation in 100 years?

A.F.: I believe it won’t even matter whether it contains recycled plastics, recycled metal or recycled paper. There will simply be raw material, which is sustainable, and recycling will be integrated into the value chain as a whole, as well as in the thought process of all citizens.

 

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