As a leader in solutions for PET packaging, among others, Sidel is well placed to give us a picture of how the industry is tackling the complex and often divisive sustainability issues the plastics industry is faced with. Victoria Hattersley spoke to Sidel sustainability officer Luc Desoutter to hear his take on these.

PET meets the highest food standard regulations, has a high value and as a commodity is relatively cheap to produce. That being said, it’s no secret that the material has come under fire recently, and it’s perhaps not so difficult to understand why. We view images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and we regularly hear frightening statistics such as ‘yearly plastic waste can circle the Earth four times’, or ‘plastic outnumbers sea life by six to one’.

But taking a more nuanced approach, at Packaging Europe we have argued it is not so much that plastics need to be banished, as that we urgently need as a society to find a more coordinated, sustainable way to deal with the waste created. Some believe the answer lies in more efficient recycling technologies and infrastructure, others lobby for the development of biodegradable plastics that can be rolled out on a wider scale. Initiatives in PET, such as EPBP (the European PET Bottle Platform) and activities by Petcore Europe, and efforts across the wider plastics ecosystem by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and CEFLEX are already taking steps to tackle the challenges.

How does Sidel view this tension? “What we’ve seen is a growing concern about the environment and the image of plastics has not been great,” says Mr Desoutter. “Of course we need to understand where the reality is, and I believe we can’t lose sight of the great and unique recyclability of PET.  Let’s not forget that it is also a very valuable material. To give an idea: a bale of PET is worth 300-600 euros per tonne. Not many materials have such a value.”

A real and growing pressure

It would seem short-sighted to ignore such value when there are ways in which we can work to mitigate the problem. It’s an unavoidable truth that businesses must always have an eye to their bottom line, hence today’s emphasis on extracting even more value while moving towards a circular economy at the same time. The latter at least is something we can all agree is a Good Thing, wherever we sit in the value chain.

And there is a real and growing pressure both from within and outside the industry to increase the use of rPET. But the availability of recycled materials is as yet nowhere near what it would need to be for true circularity. Because of this, food grade recycled PET is more expensive than virgin PET, and this is of course another barrier to its take-up. Something has to give.

Mr Desoutter believes the tide may turn if, for example, EU leaders introduce new collection schemes similar to the German model. Several countries including Portugal and the UK have already indicated they will do this, although for the latter it remains to be seen whether the continuing uncertainty around Brexit negotiations will slow progress. Belgium is achieving good results with kerbside collection.

It’s also possible the goals set by the European Commission could help to speed things up – for instance, a 90 per cent collection target has been set for 2029, together with a target to incorporate 25 per cent recycled plastic in PET bottles by 2025. This figure is intended to reach 30 per cent in all plastic bottles as of 2030.

‘The technologies are there’

But there is still the above-mentioned battle with consumer perceptions of plastic. It has come to something when the otherwise entirely unsympathetic Thomas Gradgrind from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times – ‘fact, fact, fact’ – very nearly seems to be a voice of reason. Today, as the world moves further from an acceptance of provable facts, achieving some modicum of balance feels increasingly essential.

“If you look at glass or aluminium, the collection rate country by country is very similar to PET. We have a poor image and it’s not going to change overnight. I think what we still have to do is prove the point about recyclability. Nobody doubts the recyclability of metal and glass, but people doubt it with PET. As an industry, we have to get up to 90 per cent collection rates.”

It’s also not the case that the technologies to recycle plastics are not readily available – they are, and what’s more, Mr Desoutter says it is already economically viable to carry out mechanical recycling on the scale needed. “The technologies are there. Whenever there is a business opportunity the big players in the packaging industry will be ready to go in this direction. Whether it’s Danone, Nestlé, Pepsi or Coca-Cola, so many have already committed to reaching these goals.”

We’ve also been hearing a lot about the huge possibilities for chemical recycling. How likely is this to take off in the near future? “We have to look at this in a positive way. For sure, if you start from base materials such as Purified Terephtalic Acid (PTA) you will have different cost and energy impacts to deal with.”

But he also says this would come alongside a purer end result. “In the future, through mechanical recycling, we’ll be able to achieve seven to eight loops before reaching colour limitations. Final figures depend on recycling quality parameters. Chemical recycling will further transcend these limits and give great results. It’s early days but I think we can be optimistic.”


An interesting side point worth mentioning is that as with any such process, chemical recycling comes with its own logistical considerations. “The perfect location and fit for chemical recycling is perhaps in the chemical plant that is manufacturing virgin PET. There, to reach profitability you usually need to have much higher production volumes than the ones handled by current mechanical recycling installations. Therefore, the collection logistics will be quite different.” While Mr Desoutter does not believe chemical recycling is likely to be in direct competition with mechanical any time soon, it could act as a “very good complement.”

In short, the challenge is not that PET cannot be recycled, or that the will to recycle it is not there – as we hear time and time again, it seems to come down to the development of the correct infrastructure in terms of collection, sorting and processing, and getting the public will behind such schemes. 

‘The main challenge is perception’

One question we have briefly touched upon above is the quality of rPET: for some, there is still a question mark over whether it has the same strength, durability or barrier properties as virgin PET. I was interested to know how Sidel views this question.

“rPET and virgin PET are technically identical, meaning they share the same mechanical resistance and barrier properties,” says Mr Desoutter. “The only impact is that if you re-use PET a number of times at a very high percentage you are going to get a slight yellowing. This is usually compensated by adding a small amount of blue tint, resulting in a grey shade, so for me the main limitation could be consumers’ perception. This goes back to our discussion about chemical recycling: I think chemical will overcome this barrier but even so this should not be a limiting factor today. The discolouration, when noticed, could represent a positive signal, as it is the proof that a bottle contains rPET.”

He mentions the Japanese model as an example of how PET can be dealt with successfully. While less than 55 per cent of PET waste is collected in the world today, in Japan this figure equals 82.5 per cent. “Japan also has some of the highest quality PCR PET in the world and this is mainly down to the fact that they use only one colour – transparent PET – so there is very little contamination of the waste stream.” As of yet, we have not heard any indications that Europe will be adopting a similar principle, but it’s certainly compelling.

‘Considering the overall picture’

The above are just some of the considerations around PET packaging, but it falls on all members of the value chain to make their own contributions. How does a global player like Sidel approach the issue?

When it comes to packaging design, Sidel has made a big contribution to the lightweighting of PET packages – but this is no longer the only priority. “More than 10 years ago,” says Mr Desoutter “we introduced the ‘No-Bottle’ concept, allowing a below 10g weight for a 500ml bottle, and now we are talking of weights below six grams for the same bottle size. Our capabilities would help us reduce the weight even further, however both for the value market and the mainstream/premium segments, lightweighting is not the right answer. This is why we are increasingly concentrating our innovation efforts around the ‘RightWeighting’ approach, making sure that the package is fit for purpose.”

RightWeighting is about ensuring that the bottle is robust enough to withstand transportation and distribution challenges and deliver performance from production to the consumer. We must never forget that the main function of a package is to protect the product, which is a must if you want to enhance the brand experience.  

“We look at packaging and equipment from a 360-degree perspective. Not only do we need to take into account primary, secondary and tertiary packaging but also their interaction with the equipment in the factory. Then we need to consider the impacts they create upstream and downstream in the value chain. This is what we call ‘End to End’ approach, which ties closely with Life Cycle Analysis methodology.”

The question of lightweighting, he says, can also come down to the complexity of the supply chain. If you have a shorter chain, it is possible to reduce wall thickness further because there are fewer touchpoints where damage can occur. But the growth of e-commerce – in which supply chains are long and complex and there can be up to 20 or more touchpoints – means that we are seeing a real limit as to how far lightweighting alone can take us to meet today’s commercial realities.

“It’s true that we are currently developing solutions for carbonated soft drinks for example, whereby we can extend shelf life while reducing the container weight via our Actis™ system, a unique plasma coating solution. But even with this, there will of course be limitations at some point in time. That’s why we have to look urgently at increasing the use of rPET.” 

‘Do better every day’

At Packaging Europe, we often talk about the need for ‘joining the dots’ along the different parts of the supply chain. And it’s widely recognised now that greater collaboration could be the key to tackling some of these wider challenges and ensure we get the best value from PET – both from an economic and an environmental perspective. As mentioned above, there are many organisations working to facilitate this, which provides us with cautious optimism for the future. Sidel alone is part of Petcore in Europe and NAPCOR in the US, but there are plenty of others.

And as we know, progress isn’t linear – there are fluctuations and set-backs. There is always more to be done – compromises to be made. “We just try to do better every day,” says Mr Desoutter, “that is one of our mottoes.” And as mottoes go, it’s probably not a bad one for the industry as a whole.