CEFLEX Sustainable End Markets workstream is planning industrial scale trials delivering higher-value end market applications for flexible packaging. This work is building the business case for investment and delivery of a Quality Recycling Process, able to unlock the environmental and economic potential of mechanical recycling. We speak with CEFLEX stakeholders leading this transformation to explore what this means in practice and prospects for the future.
Interview with Berry Bellert, Sales Engineer / Development Plastics Recycling at Dutch environmental company, Atterro.
What should be done to increase the amount of polyethylene and polypropylene that are put on the market as recycled flexible packaging?
To make more recycled flexible PE and PP packaging possible, we have to focus on collecting, sorting and recycling of film and striving to make all recycled materials as high quality as possible. This means using top quality where top quality is needed; but also accepting that for some applications (cover hoods, shrink wrap, film wrap) impeccable optics is not a necessity but more of a “habit”. Adopting a mindset of “Design for recycled content” or “design follows function” can mean tuning the quality of materials to the purpose of the application. We have to educate every citizen or business partner that imperfections in film packaging, like dots, spots, colour differences is not a matter of failure but a sign of “optimal use of resources”.
How do you see existing technologies play a role in making the shift from today’s volume-based recycling into tomorrow’s value-creating via quality recycling?
There are many techniques in use, but not a lot of them reaching their potential. For example, if a sorter focuses on throughput instead on quality the cost will be lower…. but so will the quality. As long as recycled polymer has to be cheaper than virgin – and why is that by the way? – the whole chain will focus on cost.
If producers, brand owners, retailers and more would be willing to pay at least the price of virgin, a much better quality is possible, like for rPET. But we also have to accept that “recycling rates”, now more seen as collection rates, might drop when we change our focus from quantity to quality.
Can we sort out recycled polypropylene from flexible plastic waste?
It is not a matter if we can, it is a matter of justifying the investment to do it. We have to realise that sorting flexibles is much more complex than sorting rigid packaging. At the moment, there is very few infrastructure in place throughout Europe to sort out PP film. Right now, there is no business case for sorters to do so. PP film is currently recycled in PO agglomerates for injection molding or extrusion of thicker wall products. But it is recycled. Means for recycling rates there is nothing to gain, there is no extra EPR money to claim. The real question is how to stimulate improved sorting?
CEFLEX’s workstream Sustainable End Markets already proved that technically you can recycle PP film into non-food film applications which is a good start to build the business case for investment.
What end markets do you see fit for the recycled polyethylene and recycled polypropylene from flexible packaging waste?
Many brand owners and policy makers want to reach a plastic packaging recycling target of 55% and reuse recycled content in packaging applications at the same time. The new measurement point for recycling will already make it very challenging to collect and sort enough packaging waste to even get close to these targets. One way to reach the targets in some urban areas is to also sort packaging waste from residual waste in post-separation plants. Existing technology today can sort and recycle flexible packaging from such co-mingled waste delivering comparable quality with the one from separately collected waste, as also proven by trials done in CEFLEX.
How can recycled polyethylene and recycled polypropylene from household collected waste be used in packaging applications?
Use rPE or rPP when possible, or better, when virgin is not particularly needed! Every application has to justify the use of virgin or if not justifiable in a circular economy, use as much recycled polymer as possible. It is currently too easy to use virgin and the spread in EPR fees is not big enough by far.
Who has to implement the changes in the collection, sorting and recycling of household collected flexible packaging so you can use the maximum amount of recycled polymers fit for packaging applications?
The producers (EPR schemes) are in the lead. In the end, they have to pay the cost for collection, sorting and recycling. So, better than complain about rising EPR fees, take the lead, because their members produce all the packaging.