Plastic recycling industry accelerates growth towards the EU targets
European plastic recycling industry registered nearly a 10% increase in installed plastic recycling capacity for flexible film in 2020, demonstrating a solid growth despite the COVID pandemic that resulted in severe disruptions on the waste management market. The new estimate points to 2.7Mt capacity for PE film recycling with 30 new film recycling facilities, totalling 218.
Representing a demand of more than 9 million tonnes, LLDPE/LDPE is the second largest plastic fraction in the EU market and therefore shows a major recycling potential. Today 17% of recycled flexible polyethylene already finds outlet in film-to-film applications with non-food packaging and building & construction being its largest markets, while the forecasts show that PE film products could incorporate overall as much as 38% of recycled content by 2030.
“Once deemed difficult to recycle, flexible household polyethylene waste recycling is a successful business case model of today. Fast-paced technological developments in collection, sorting and recycling, made it possible to recycle film back to film. Closed-loop recycling is the future of circular flexible plastic, placing Europe as a front runner of mechanical film recycling. This is a strong signal not only for investors but also brand owners, retailers, policy-makers and citizens,” said Ton Emans, President of Plastics Recyclers Europe and PRE LDPE-Working Group Chairman. “This does not mean that there are no challenges. The main obstacles in targeting new high-end applications are multi-layer & multi-material products, which are not in line with the Design for Recycling principles”, he added.
The growth of flexible plastic recycling, however, is set to expand thanks to the ongoing positive trends. Firstly, with extended collection schemes being implemented across the Member States to reach the EU recycling targets, the collection of flexible plastic film from households is set to grow. Secondly, better sorting technologies paired with the effort of EPR systems and sorting centers generate mono-material streams, gradually decreasing mixed polyolefin fraction. Lastly, with flexible plastic value chain players’ commitments to improving the recyclability of plastics, as well as incorporating recycled plastics in their products, demand for high-quality recycled flexible PE will further grow.
To pursue these positive trends, nevertheless, the industry players must look towards long-term solutions and not quick fixes. To give an example, the Quality Recycling Process developed by Ceflex is not in line with the objective of making flexible packaging household waste fully circular. On the contrary, it will jeopardize well-established and well-functioning recycling processes while bringing efforts of making flexible plastic packaging fully recyclable to a standstill. Implementation of this ‘so-called’ new solution will generate additional tonnages of mixed polyolefins which can be destined only to an already saturated injection moulding market that cannot absorb the important quantities coming from recycling of flexible household waste. Furthermore, using recycled materials to substitute wood, glass or metal can never be the industry target.
“Processes which propose only 20 % of the recycled film back to film applications and 80 % to injection moulding are a step backwards for our industry as they are not aligned with the principles of the circular economy”, stated Ton Emans, President of Plastics Recyclers Europe and PRE LDPE-Working Group Chairman. “It will never be a profitable business case”, he added.
If the industry is to transform flexible plastic waste management genuinely and durably towards circularity, the focus must be on further optimizing and advancing the already well-performing processes and solutions to produce the highest quality of recycled material, driving the uptake of recyclates in film applications.
Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE) is an organization representing the voice of the European plastics recyclers who reprocess plastic waste into high quality material destined for production of new articles. Recyclers are important facilitators of the circularity of plastics and the transition towards the circular economy.
Plastics recycling in Europe is a rapidly growing sector representing over €3 billion in turnover, 8.5 million tonnes of installed recycling capacity, 600 companies and over 20.000 employees.