INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS DOW, CEO, CLOSED LOOP RECYCLING
THE PIONEERING RECYCLER
When Australian Chris Dow arrived in the UK in 2008 to start a PET and HDPE recycling plant, he faced widespread scepticism. But having seen how plastic recycling had been embraced in Australia, he was convinced that it was just a matter of time before many other countries got behind it in the same way. And he was right.
Why did you choose PET and not glass or carton?
When we started out, I did some research and found out that 1) PET is an outstanding packaging form, 2) it's a finite resource and 3) there's technology that enables it to be recycled 100%. PET is simply an incredible packaging form. You can see the product on the shelves, it performs well under carbonation, it's marketable and more importantly it protects the goods it's carrying.
Was it easy to get customers?
We started out with a couple of lorry loads of PET from Germany and ran trials with retailers, such as Marks & Spencer, who were our founding partner in this process. Marks & Spencer also did consumer research and it was remarkable to see how overwhelmingly positive their customers were.
How did you initially get hold of the material?
Potential investors would always ask us 'Where are you going to get material from?' Back in 2004, the recycling rate for plastic bottles was only 5%. From our Australian experience, we knew that it would grow fast. By the time we'd built the plant in 2008, the collection rate had grown from 30,000 tonnes a year, just three years before, to 200,000 tonnes. It was great timing.
Are there any trials to check the safety of recycled PET?
Yes, and trials have become much more sophisticated. We operate under some strict regulatory environments. Recycled PET is managed by the US Food and Drug Administration, and soon the European Food Safety Authority approvals are coming through. The material is incredibly clean and incredibly safe. This strict regulatory environment means that recycled PET is actually safer than virgin resin.
If recycled PET is so safe, why is it not used more extensively?
We have a formidable body of evidence that says recycled PET is a good and safe material, however you can still run into issues mainly associated with marketing. It might create a slight discoloration but this has no impact on the bottle's performance or safety. If you're in a competitive marketplace, producers might not want to disadvantage themselves. We're seeing more and more brands taking the courageous step and using recycled PET because it's the right thing to do and because it's what consumers want. For example, Coca-Cola are now using 25-30% recycled content and taking a leadership position. It's important to acknowledge the work done by big brands like this to use recycled material and encourage its use in the marketplace.
Do you work closely with retailers?
Most definitely. If they've created a new packaging form, they'll come over and we'll run it through the plant to assess its recyclability. We also work with retailers on bottle design. For example, Sainsbury's agreed to reduce the tint in their bottle caps because it was affecting the recycling process.
How receptive are retailers to what you tell them?
I've been astounded by the openness of retailers to recycling. The carbon footprint of a product is now a significant purchasing factor. It used to be price and quality, now it's price, quality and carbon footprint. Retailers will often tell their suppliers that they need to reduce the carbon footprint of the product. They are very switched on to their customer requirements.
Can you see another packaging material that could replace PET and recycled PET?
No, not in the near term. PET performs on such a high level that we have to preserve it and extend its life.
How do you see PET recycling developing in the future?
I think there'll be more supply chain partnerships and we'll see more bottle producers working with recyclers and more recyclers working with virgin resin producers. The recycling industry will become more sophisticated; less about the waste industry and more about sophisticated manufacturing.
Has the recent trend for bottle lightweighting affected your business?
In a perfect world, it's an irrelevance, as whatever you put into the recycling process, you'll get back again. But in practical terms, the optical sorters need to identify more bottles to get the same tonnage of material out. That's the single biggest factor. As long as it doesn't affect the performance of the bottle, it's still the right thing to do.
PET recycling has grown enormously in developed countries. Do you see the same trend in developing countries?
We know of recyclers starting up in Africa who are bringing in material from different countries. That shows the intrinsic value of PET. It's no longer just litter that can be discarded but money on the ground. So people are collecting it and cashing it in. It's simply becoming too valuable to be part of the litter chain.
ABOUT CLOSED LOOP RECYCLING
From their plant in east London, UK, Closed Loop Recycling produces food-grade recycled PET and HDPE from plastic bottle waste. Using high technology, each year 55,000 tonnes of bottles are sorted, washed, super cleaned and reprocessed into recycled PET and HDPE that meets EU and US FDA standards. In doing so, 1.3 billion bottles that would otherwise have been exported for recycling or sent to landfill are reprocessed and remain locally. This saves approximately 82,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.