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.