Yes to the use of recycled material - Divided opinion on the quota

28 November 2022

The plastics industry is facing a huge challenge: the transformation to a climate-neutral circular economy. Panel discussion – Part 1

At the end of November, the EU Commission is likely to propose concrete proposals for minimum recyclate contents of 25 to 50 percent in plastic packaging from 2030 onwards, including food packaging, as part of its draft European Packaging Regulation. Those who cannot meet the quota will then no longer be allowed to put their packaging on the market. But this will require an additional one million tonnes of post-consumer recyclates in the polyolefins sector alone. How can the missing recyclates be made available? And how can the supply risks for packaging manufacturers be reduced? Dr Isabell Schmidt, IK Managing Director for Circular Economy, discussed these and other questions with packaging manufacturers as well as plastics producers and recyclers at the panel discussion of the IK Annual Conference 2022.

Processors fear dramatic supply shortages and rising prices

When asked whether they were likely to be able to meet the EU's quota requirements, plastic packaging manufacturers expressed great concern. Dr. Ing. Michael Heyde, Head of Recycling Technology at ALPLA Werke Lehner, sees the availability of raw materials as the biggest limitation for the use of recycled material. If the prices for bales of various types of polymers rise to around 1,000 euros per tonne, as happened in the summer, dramatic supply bottlenecks can be expected in view of the high use rates. There is a lack of suitable waste collection infrastructures in Europe and worldwide. He sees politics as the main responsibility here. Johannes Wedi, Technical Director R&D at Bischof + Klein, stated that they were currently capable of incorporating 20 to 25% post-consumer recyclates into films if they received the raw materials. However, this is not the case. Also, customers are currently not willing to pay the extra price. Chemical recycling would increase prices even more. Where more interesting alternatives exist in terms of price, he therefore sees a danger of migration to other types of material. Klaus-Peter Schmidt, Head of R&D and Sustainability Management at Mauser International Packaging, drew attention to the special features of dangerous goods packaging. These have to comply with international regulations, which is why only very specific types of recyclate can be used - goods from the yellow bag are out of the question. Availability is also very limited in this area. At the moment, they manage to use an average of just under 15% recyclates, although technically much more is possible.

Plastics producers think market signals from the EU are necessary

On the other hand, PlasticsEurope, the association of plastics producers, is in favour of a high use rate of recyclates for food packaging in order to achieve more investment security for chemical recycling. Dr. Peter Sandkuehler, Director Substainability EMEA for Packaging & Speciality Plastics at Dow, considers the quotas necessary to achieve a circular economy. A clear market signal from the EU is needed that investments must be made in the entire value chain in order to be able to meet the quotas. In Europe, billions of euros of investment in infrastructure are needed to provide larger circular flows. Currently, about seven million tonnes of polyolefin plastic waste are still incinerated in Europe. The infrastructure to take this back needs to be built. However, this will only happen if there are corresponding market signals. Matthias Stechhan, Sales Manager Central Europe for Polyofine, LyondellBasell, added that the recyclate targets are only partly affordable through further investment in mechanical recycling and design for recycling. Without chemical recycling, he said, the problem could not be solved; it was part of the circular economy.

Quota yes, but not like this

Herbert Snell, Vice-President of the German Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal (bvse), welcomed quotas in principle, but criticised their level, which was based on unrealistic assumptions. The EU was doing too little to enforce the recycling targets in Europe. He also criticised the requirement that recyclates be used in food packaging and other contact-sensitive applications. The use of recycled material saves a lot of CO2 - regardless of the application. Therefore, there should not be any requirements as to what the recyclate is used for. Thirdly, a rethink is necessary among brand manufacturers when it comes to design for recycling. However, this essential aspect is not sufficiently addressed because false hopes are placed in chemical recycling.

More than one million tonnes of PCR are missing

When asked where the additional quantities of recyclates needed to meet the quotas - estimated at about 700 thousand tonnes in the polyethylene sector alone - should come from, Stechhan cited unused potential in the recycling of plastic waste, which is still landfilled in many European countries today. There is a need for mechanical and chemical recycling to work together; for example, the processing waste from mechanical recycling could be used for chemical recycling. LyondellBasell is pursuing the goal of offering two million tonnes of recyclates worldwide by 2030. The first plant is to be built in 2026. Sandkühler added that Dow had just announced the construction of a chemical recycling plant with a capacity of 100,000 tonnes in Saxony, Germany, which should be operational in 2025.

Heyde, however, questioned the harmonious coexistence of mechanical and chemical recycling. If the processing waste from mechanical recycling were to be used for chemical recycling processes, it would have to be freed of water, dirt and other materials. In the end, a very small residue of recyclable polyolefins would remain, which would just as well find an acceptance in mechanical recycling. Stechhan admitted that the chemical recycling of mixed plastic waste with the help of catalysts is still under development at the moment. However, he said it was clear that in the future they would not process single-variety plastic fractions; this would not meet with acceptance. Sandkühler added that it was necessary to develop new material streams outside the yellow bag. The goal is to process the plastic fraction from residual waste and commercial waste. However, for the further processing of the pyrolysis products in the currently existing crackers, they depend on high polyolefin contents in the waste, he said.

How cannibalisation of mechanical recycling can be avoided, where additional plastic waste should come from as input for recycling, how marketing bans can be avoided, this and more you will learn in the second part of the panel discussion.

Source: IK