Plastic Recycling – What’s Next for Takeback Schemes?

Plastic has been a revolutionary substance. But since its invention over 100 years ago, our appetite for it continues to grow at an alarming and dangerous pace. Since then, plastic products have become a lot more complex and more difficult to recycle. As a result, the infrastructure underpinning recycling struggles with high levels of contamination. At present only 9% of plastics created are recycled, only two out of seven types of plastic are widely recycled and plastic use is expected to rise three-fold by 2050.

Since China’s solid waste import ban in January 2018, Malaysia and the Philippines have planned similar bans. As a result, exports of recycling have become more expensive, encouraging innovation for local solutions to local waste streams.


In anticipation of further regulations and consumer pressure, corporates are assuming greater Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), taking added responsibility for  the products they create from design to end-of-life. However, the reality of EPR is complex and involves many trade-offs especially as the current waste infrastructure is so inefficient. To counter this, corporates and municipalities are offering take-back schemes with innovators offering reverse logistics services, advanced recycling or recovery services to support.

For corporates, takeback schemes can fulfill Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals, meet increasing consumer pressure for greener products and can provide a competitive advantage. Operationally, companies can mitigate the risks of handling hazardous materials and have an additional supply of raw materials to remake products.

Business Models

So how do they work? Takeback schemes often involve an incentive. For example, In November 2019, UK Footwear retailer Schuh offered £5 in-store vouchers, for every pair of shoes returned. Global clothing brand H&M operate an instore clothing collection program. Customers can swap a bag of clothes, from any brand, for clothing vouchers. Clothes are then either reused, re-worn or recycled.

Deposit return schemes are commonplace, where an additional deposit is added on top of a product’s price, then once the packaging (usually a plastic or glass bottle) is returned, the deposit is returned to the customer. Over 40 countries word-wide host similar bottle return schemes including Israel, Germany as well as 21 US states and Dubai in the UAE.

Some schemes are publicly funded. In Rome, Italy you can swap around 30 plastic bottles for a subway trip. The Italian Public Transport provider Atac partnered with the Italian Consortium for PET recycling, Coripet, to deliver the pilot scheme,+Ricicli +Viaggi (the more you recycle, the more you travel).

More environmentally conscious brands operate on consumer faith, in May 2019, cosmetic store The Body Shop partnered with recycling provider, Terracycle founder of reverse logistics spin-off Loop, to offer an in-store collection scheme for all its plastic bottles. Supermarket Co-op is also planning an in-store collection scheme for hard to recycle plastics.


Technology is helping to improve takeback schemes. Brands may soon be able to maximize PR opportunities by tagging on additional advertisements with digitized takeback schemes. Recycleye has developed a proof of concept neural network which identifies and classifies recyclable materials to a material and brand level. Brand level recycling encourages individualized EPR schemes and assigns greater value to waste with advertising opportunities. In February 2020, Recycleye was chosen to join Microsoft’s AI Accelerator AI for Good and given access to Microsoft technology, resources and expertise.

In January 2020, TOMRA, developer of waste sorting infrastructure, launched its R1 reverse vending machine which can process up to 100 plastic bottles at once, as opposed to inserting each container one by one.

Greyparrot has developed computer vision, AI sensors and software to assist smart bins and reverse vending machines to recognize materials, sorting and discarding non-recyclables and calculating the value accepted materials. In March 2019, Greyparrot was selected for Digital Catapult’s latest Machine Intelligence Garage accelerator cohort.

In September 2019, Smarter Sorting, a developer of a data platform for sorting returned or unsold products, raised $12 million in a Series A round with investors US Ecology & RTP Ventures. Smarter Sorting’s platform uses AI and data from industry compliance experts to provide accurate classification for returned products, including reuse, recycling, and disposal instructions. Smarter Sorting technology is reducing waste and improving recycling rates.

And Finally…

Although takeback schemes are promising, infrastructure to scale is limited, there are not enough players in this space offering reverse logistics services. Takeback schemes alone will not be enough to address the global plastics crisis. In order to make plastics truly circular, many actions need to take place. One of those is traceability.

As with all supply chains, traceability provides buyers transparency into the materials they are purchasing and so can make accurate valuations of worth. Pioneer project HolyGrail, a partnership led by P&G together with Danone, Nestlé, Pepsico, Veolia and many more, intends to improve sorting by implementing digital watermarks and chemical tracers. This week P&G announced they will be trialing digital watermarks on its Unstoppable Fabric Fresheners and Lenoir fabric softener in Germany by October this year.