To overcome this challenge and meet ambitious recycling targets, recyclers and material sorting facilities (MRFs) are using advanced technologies to produce feedstock for high-grade applications, expanding their business opportunities.
As legislation continues to push for a reduction in plastic waste, the demand for high-quality recycled plastics are at a record high. Plastics are durable, efficient, and convenient, which makes them hugely beneficial to consumers and businesses alike. Making plastic products and packaging more sustainable is the challenge of our time.
Demand vs. recycled content availability
In 2020, worldwide plastic production amounted to 367 million metric tons (mt). Europe produced 55 mt of plastic, with 70% of the total market demand coming from the largest countries, using 40.5% of the material for packaging production. In the quest to create a circular economy for plastics, the share of virgin material in manufacturing should be reduced and replaced by secondary raw materials.
Plastic recycling has certainly had its share of bad publicity, not least due to downcycling – after all, there is a limited demand for items such as park benches, flowerpots and speed bumps. The recycling industry, working in collaboration with members of plastic value chains, has now made it possible to create virgin-like recycled content with advanced mechanical recycling. Not only does this prove to be an economically feasible and practical alternative to primary materials, it also gives recyclers and MRFs the opportunity to create new revenue streams. Even in the case of highly contaminated plastic waste streams, like municipal solid waste (MSW), it is now possible to source quality feedstock that can be used to create new products.
The S&P Global Platts Analytics predicts that by 2030 more than 1.7 million metric tons of virgin polymers will be replaced by mechanically recycled plastics – compared to 688,000 mt in 2020.
New developments in legislation
A harmonized approach is required to enable greater plastics circularity and provide a long-term supply of recycled content for the market to reduce dependency on primary materials..
The Plastic Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, introduced by the European Union in 1994, is among the legislation that defines recycled content targets, creating end markets for secondary raw materials. The directive makes it mandatory for packaging producers to use at least 50% recycled content in the production of new plastic packaging by 2025 and more than 55% by 2030. In 2021, the EU introduced a Single-Use Plastics Directive requiring a minimum of 25% of recycled content in PET bottles by 2025 and a separate collection target of 77%. Countries with DRSs are a best practice: Germany achieves a 98% collection rate for PET and the Netherlands follows closely with 95%.
Advanced mechanical recycling and collaboration along the value chain
Beyond dedicated collection streams, the addition of mixed waste sorting is also proving to deliver high-quality plastic for recycling. A case study with AVR, a residual waste sorting plant in the Netherlands, demonstrated that mixed waste sorting with high-performing technologies can capture 12 times more plastics for recycling, cutting down on CO2 emissions. Other sorting facilities, such as the Norwegian companies IVAR IKS or ROAF, also demonstrate the enormous potential that mixed waste sorting offers if municipalities and businesses invest in advanced technologies and processes.
Collaboration is key in plastic recycling
Collaboration is key in plastic recycling. Improving recyclability and increasing the quantity of recycled content demands that industry go upstream because high-quality recycling begins in the design phase. Brand owners are incentivized to implement design-for-recycling to help facilitate the sorting process. The more complex and colorful the design of a product is, the more difficult it is to sort and recycle. Thus, to maximize resource recovery, product design, sorting technology, and the overall process must complement each other.
The recycling sector offers tremendous potential, but limited recycled content availability, low-quality recyclates, and a lack of financial incentives impair its evolution. Legislation and consumer awareness signal that it is time to reduce waste and make recycling a priority. Highly efficient sorting processes that enable MRFs, and recyclers to create high-purity mono fractions from even the most contaminated waste streams, will ensure a long-term supply of recycled content.
As part of the roadmap to the circularity of plastics, the capability to create virgin-like recycled content opens new revenue streams for sorting facilities and recyclers while reinforcing local trading. Using sensor-based sorting technologies provides an economic advantage to the entire plastics value chain.