A volunteer collects plastic bottles on the ocean shore

How improving recycled plastics certifications can support circularity

Certification programs can help validate recycled plastic claims, but actions are needed to reduce complexity and drive harmonization.


In brief
  • Demand for recycled plastic continues to increase, and certification programs can help validate recycled plastic claims.
  • Existing certification programs are complex, costly, and varied.
  • Through supply chain engagement, digital tool development, and greater harmonization, certifications can have greater impact on the recycled plastic economy.

Over the last 20 years, calls to reduce or ban plastic have increased across the globe. Viral images of marine animals entangled in plastic or the increasing detection of microplastics in drinking water sources have made it clear that plastics in the environment are an issue of growing concern. However, all plastics are not the enemy they are made out to be; they are a durable and lightweight material that have enabled countless advancements in society from ensuring food safety and hygiene to medical product versatility and sterilization. Transitioning to a circular economy – a systems-based framework grounded in reduced waste and multiple lifecycles – will keep plastics in circulation for longer and reduce the need for single-use plastic. 

Innovative processes like mechanical and chemical recycling have transformed how we approach the plastic lifecycle but concerns around the validity of recycled content claims remain. As plastic manufacturers and brands increasingly incorporate recycled plastic into their products and packaging, entities across the value chain will be challenged to demonstrate credibility of claims to avoid greenwashing concerns.

Recycled plastic certifications can provide the assurance and transparency needed in the circular economy, but the current certification landscape lacks coordination. This diminishes the usage and effectiveness of these certifications. Harmonization among these certifications could enable the necessary growth in recycled plastic supply needed to meet current and projected future demand and support companies across the value chain to achieve their ambitious recycled plastic goals.

The availability of recycled plastic is not meeting the needs for the growing plastic waste problem

 

By 2030, recycled plastic demand is projected to be between 200% and 300% higher than current levels, increasing competition for recycled plastic.¹ Recycled plastics meet only 6% of the current demand for common resins: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).² Of the small amount of available recycled plastics, certified recycled plastic makes up an even smaller portion. The availability of certified recycled material inputs for plastic products is an increasing concern for the world’s largest consumer brands and retailers that have set goals to reduce their use of virgin plastic in favor of recycled plastic – with goals set to be reached as early as 2025.

 

Regulators are joining consumers and retailers in pushing for more circular plastics. State and federal regulators are setting legislation to drive investments in plastics circularity, such as California’s Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act (SB 54)³ and the Canada’s Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste and Action Plan, 2018.⁴ These efforts seek to decrease the production of single-use plastics and implement strategies to increase recycling and the use of post-consumer resin. In March 2022, the European Union (EU) went a step further and proposed an update to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive requiring companies to eliminate the use of generic and vague environmental claims or displaying sustainability labels without a third-party verification scheme.⁵ Using certified recycled content or having a product certified could be the new legal requirement for newly proposed minimum recycled content legislations, with California’s law requiring producers of certain single-use packaging and plastics to include at least 30% of recycled material in their material beginning in 2028, with the percentage increasing to 65% by 2032.⁶ As recycled polymers usage continues to grow in products, regulators will rely heavily on certifiers to validate recyclability claims, prevent greenwashing and address consumer skepticism regarding recycled content.

 

Certifications are needed for transparency and credibility, but the current process is complicated

 

Certifications serve as third-party verification to provide claims for recycled content, proving validity based on predetermined criteria. Depending on the certifier, the process can include assessing a specific product or site including the collection facility, producer and converter. This process functions on both a business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) model as it creates benefits for the entire value chain and ultimately the final consumer. For example, if a brand is looking to transition to 50% recycled plastic in all product packaging, they would source recycled plastic from a certified producer or converter.

 

The existing recycled plastics certification landscape in the United States varies largely and includes several different certifiers with varying scopes, chain of custody methods, allocation methods, product claims, sustainability requirements and certification types. The certification process is also resource intensive; certification costs, information gathering, preparing facilities and required upgrades can be cumbersome for small companies. If certification is required for multiple sites or facilities, the undertaking is substantial. Facilities and products are required to be recertified on a multi-year basis, with standards and requirements expected to continue to change, leading to a recurring, long-term cost to remain certified. After including additional fees for certification or additional modifications required to satisfy certification requirements, the cost for the certified recycled plastic may be more expensive than using virgin plastic.⁷

Harmonization among the various certifiers could reduce the effort needed for certifications

The complicated process to obtain certifications may derail companies’ goals to increase the use of post-consumer resins in their products due to inconsistencies and potentially higher costs.⁸ The primary inconsistencies in the certification process reside in the chain of custody and allocation methods. Chain of custody refers to the process of monitoring and transferring information for the material inputs and outputs throughout the supply chain.⁹ Different chain of custody methods across certifiers can lead to varying allocation methods and ways to trace the material throughout the supply chain, leading to further complications. Companies must determine which certification aligns with their objectives based on the type of activity they want covered (site, product or entire supply chain), and which allocation and chain of custody method is most applicable.

Recycled plastics certifiers could follow the models of other successful certification landscapes, such as the ENERGY STAR certification program for energy efficiency. Covering a wide variety of products, ENERGY STAR is a voluntary government-developed and administered certification that aims to promote energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. The process for certification is simplified for companies as the government agency has determined one set of standards that companies can meet to consider their products ENERGY STAR certified. Additionally, as the main energy efficiency certifier in the country, ENERGY STAR is widely recognized by consumers. A 2019 survey indicated that more than 90% of households recognize the blue ENERGY STAR label,¹⁰ demonstrating a successful collaboration between the public and private sector, a model that recycled plastics certifications may want to consider.

A path forward for certifiers and their customers

The processes for incorporating certified recycled plastics into a company’s supply chain must become more standardized and accessible for brand owners to make the necessary investments to achieve their circularity goals. Improving the certification process through harmonization can help to overcome the noted challenges.

The EU has already acted to encourage harmonization among certifiers. Co-financed by the European Commission, the European Certification of Plastics Recyclers (EuCertPlast) is a certification scheme that attempts to increase transparency in the plastics industry by focusing on traceability and aligning the scheme to European Standard EN 15343:2007.¹¹ Under this certification scheme, recyclers and auditors can integrate different auditing methods to certify recycled material.

EuCertPlast has already certified more than 200 companies from 2021 to 2022. Using a model similar to EuCertPlast, US certifiers could align with a consistent recycled plastics certification process that provides enhanced access for brands and their value chains to obtain recommended certifications.

While the recycled plastics certification landscape continues to evolve, brand owners and plastic manufacturers can take the following actions as they seek certifications:

  1. Leverage digital technology to reduce the resource intensity of the certification process.
  2. Set public goals and develop action plans to increase recyclability of plastic products, following the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ (APR) Design Guide12 to produce products and plastics that are recyclable under the APR definition.
  3. Facilitate value chain engagement and alignment such that multiple brand owners in the same industry can leverage the same certification and recycled plastic types at the processing facilities where their peers also source materials.
  4. Make design and material choices that allow for high-quality recycled content that your company will utilize later in the lifecycle.
  5. Encourage collection points, processing units and producers to source and use recycled plastic content in their production processes.

While recycled polymer certifications can ensure the validity of the use of recycled plastics, it is a small step in the direction of the societal collaboration and innovation that is needed to solve the growing plastic waste issue. Brand owners should invest in long-term opportunities to reduce all plastics, especially nonrecyclable materials, from their supply chains, and integrate recycled plastics into their production processes.

Daisy Benitez, Rachel Coyle, Kristin Bianca and Elizabeth Tual also contributed to this article.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.


Summary 

Calls to reduce or ban plastic have increased worldwide. Innovative processes like mechanical and chemical recycling have transformed the plastic lifecycle but concerns around the validity of recycled content claims remain. Recycled plastic certifications can provide the assurance and transparency needed in the circular economy, but the current certification landscape lacks coordination. Harmonization among certifications could enable the growth in recycled plastic supply needed to meet current and projected future demand and support companies across the value chain to achieve their ambitious recycled plastic goals.

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