As new inventions develop, plastics packaging and products are utilized in an increasing number of applications. However, the newly manufactured products often have very complex designs.
When a product contains a mixture of different polymers or differing materials, the recyclability is impeded. Recyclers are unable to separate these components effectively and therefore limited in their efforts to provide high quality recyclates.
Product designers have to keep in mind the compatibility of the different materials and components they use, ultimately considering the recyclability of their products. If these issues are addressed properly, even the complex plastics packaging and products can be recycled, leading the markets closer to circular economy.
High landfilling rates and the absence of bans on landfilling
Waste diverted from landfill is a valuable resource that can be recycled and introduced back into the markets. Europe should collectively work towards completely banning landfills, if recycling targets are to be achieved and environment protected in a sustainable manner.
Landfilling is the least prefered waste management option. Materials and chemicals piled up in the landfills release toxins and gases that endanger and pollute both land and waterways. Majority of countries still rely on this method of waste disposal instead of turning waste into a resource.
High levels of exports to non-EU countries
Roughly 10.000 trucks of plastic waste leave Europe every day. This waste is then exported to developing countries and processed without quality standards and under poor conditions. Developing countries provide a high supply of cheap labour force, ergo plastic waste is exported rather than processed by the European recyclers.
Contributing to the outflow of resources and supplies outside of EU, high export levels limit the expansion and strengthening of the European plastics recycling market.
Limiting exports would decrease Europe’s dependency on imports of natural resources.
Fluctuations in the quality and quantity of supplies delivered to recyclers and end-users
Unstandardized and unharmonized collection and sorting schemes across Europe pose a problem when it comes to supplies delivered to and by the recyclers.
These fluctuations impede the recyclers’ ability to provide the market with the required constant supply of recyclates with homogenous quality level. The uncertainty in the supply chain makes converters hesitant to rely upon secondary raw materials.
Introduction of common standards and certification schemes can go a long way in solving the problem of varying supply quantities and qualities, and as a consequence it would strengthen the secondary raw materials market.
Inadequate and unharmonized monitoring of the flow and performance of plastics
The European plastics recycling industry lacks sufficient transparency and traceability levels. Flows of plastics, plastics waste and recyclates are not sufficiently and properly monitored.
Tracking the source of plastics recyclates and their performance through later stages, in a uniform manner across EU, would give more confidence to the converters as to the quality and reliability of the products.
One of the goals of the EuCertPlast certification scheme is to increase traceability and transparency of the secondary raw materials market. The scheme aims to signal implementation of good practices and high standards, as well as the production of high quality recycled products by the certified recyclers.
Negative image and health concerns associated with the use of recyclates
Limited use of recyclates in new applications had long been enforced by the negatively perceived images concerning the quality and health implications associated with the use of recycled content. Recycled plastic is thought to be of inferior quality to that sourced from the virgin materials. However, a number of polymers can be recycled multiple times before starting to lose the original properties, and additionally new collection, sorting and recycling technologies have led to increasing quality of plastics recyclates.
European Food Safety Authority has adopted more than 140 positive scientific opinions regarding the use of recycled plastics in food contact materials. Absence of a harmonized EU legislation regarding the use of recyclates in food contact applications unnecessarily hampers the market – creating confusion, uncertainty and mistrust.
Increased awareness among consumers and businesses
With numerous reports depicting the extent of the plastic pollution in the environment, the general public and businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the issues. Unsustainable plastic products and waste management activities face harsh scrutiny. The consumers are voicing their opinions more prominently and favouring environmentally friendly products.
As awareness continues to grow, the demand for products containing recycled content is likely to surpass the demand of products sourced solely from virgin materials – creating significant potential for the recycling markets to expand.
Implementation of design for recycling and use of recyclates by brands
Brands are becoming increasingly aware of how their product designs can impede the recyclability. Additionally, the use of recyclates boosts the CSR image among consumers – consequently more and more brands are turning to design for recycling guidelines and sourcing recyclates as their raw materials.
Refined design allows for plastic products to serve the markets longer, and as these products become easily recyclable their life cycles become longer and more valuable. Furthermore, adapting to new designs has a great potential to cut the Extended Producer Responsibility costs.
To get more insight on whether your plastic packaging is easily recyclable, you can consult the RecyClass tool. Among other things, the tool provides advice and recommendations on how to improve design of packaging.
Increased number and quality of separate collection and sorting schemes
Each European collector has his/her own rules and requirements to sell the waste to recyclers. These varying standards make it very hard for recyclers to comply with any European schemes.
Fortunately, collection figures and the quality of sorted waste have been improving. The increase of sorted waste quality is one of the first steps leading to improved efficiency of the circular economy. It has a cost impact on the rest of the waste management cycle and can improve the financing of the system. Moreover, EU standards and harmonization will help consolidate the market in Europe.
Increased collection and sorting capacities are imperative in order to increase the overall plastics recycling rates across Europe, to give certainty to converters that the material is recycled according to the highest standards and to boost the market for the products with recycled content.
Existence of standards and certificates
Standards and certificates are put in place to signal best practices and give guidance to businesses as to how they can operate in line with high standards. Luckily for plastics recycling stakeholders, standards and certificates do exist. With these guidance systems, plastics waste can be treated in a proper manner, and high quality recyclates can be produced. Furthermore, standards and certificates signal trust among consumers, boosting the demand for the certified products.
The next step is to harmonize the differing standards so that further trading and further expansion of recycling activities is made easier.
Positive environmental effects stimulated by circular economy model
Positive effects stimulated by the circular economy model among others include: saving natural resources, reducing Europe's dependency on imports, boosting the creation of cleaner industries, jobs, investments, technology developments, etc.
Implementation of the circular economy package can create 50.000 new direct jobs within the recycling and waste management sector by 2020, and 80.000 jobs by 2025. Additionally, by 2020 75.000 indirect jobs would be created in fields of research, equipment manufacturing and others, while by 2025 the model would boost 120.000 jobs.
Fully functional secondary raw materials market
Strong secondary raw materials markets are necessary for creating a level playing field for recycled and virgin raw materials. Fully functional and transparent markets for recyclates would boost the collection and the recycling of plastics, as well as boost the use of recyclates in end markets.
To stimulate the establishment of such market standards, certificates and economic incentives should be introduced. As mentioned earlier, standards and certificates do exist and so do certain EPR schemes. The next step would be to harmonise the existing rules, incentives and standards and additionally introduce more tangent ones, which would further motivate and stimulate the market for plastics recyclates.