Recyclability: a game-changer for fully circular plastic packaging

Plastic waste, leakage and pollution have been making headlines in recent years and are high on the agenda of the public, media and decision-makers alike, explains Ton Emans.
Ton Emans

By Ton Emans

Ton Emans is the President of Plastics Recyclers Europe

15 Sep 2020

Plastic waste, leakage and pollution have been making headlines in recent years and are high on the agenda of the public, media and decision-makers alike, explains Ton Emans.

Today we see the scale of the problem and we understand the causes of the plastic pollution crisis. In Europe, a set of tools and measures exist to tackle this pressing issue. They must be, nonetheless, implemented and enforced.

One of the key measures for changing the status quo in the waste management practices of plastics is making them recyclable.

The EU has made it clear: all plastic packaging must be recyclable and reusable by 2030. The deadline is tight and there is no time to waste, we need to act now.

Specifically, there is an urgency in ensuring the recyclability of flexible packaging - which is most widely used in packaging - representing over 60 percent of the total demand.

“The high-end applications for recycled flexible packaging remain largely underexploited. Currently, only 13 percent of polyethylene packaging is used in closed-loop applications and therefore, is in practice circular. Our target is to increase the circularity of plastics and secure a sustainable use of resources”

Consequently, plastic packaging coming from households has the highest potential of contributing towards the achievement of the EU recycling targets for plastics, with a prospect of more than tripling in capacity and creating 100,000 jobs during the next decade.

Why is design for recycling a game-changer for flexible plastic packaging? The answer is simple. Recyclability creates an added value as the material can be recycled and used again.

It also leads to more efficient collection, sorting and recycling processes and in turn guarantees higher quality of recycled material. This allows for the material to go back to packaging applications, promoting the ambitious targets of the industry and effectively substituting virgin plastics use.

Today over 20 percent of flexible films that are put on the market are multilayers and multimaterials that are incompatible with recycling. These materials, when collected and sorted into the flexible plastic packaging waste stream are either processed along with the targeted material, therefore negatively impacting its quality, or are discarded and incinerated.

This, in turn, does not only negatively affect the technical performances of such material but also its visual aspect, drastically minimising its end markets.

One such end-markets is outdoor furniture. Take a bench for example, with the amount of multilayer and multimaterial flexible packaging that is put on the EU market today, every year, 25 million new benches could be produced.

If we then consider the EU roads network, this amounts to one bench for every 240 metres. This approach is highly unsustainable and futile in a circular economy.

To ensure full circularity of plastic packaging we need to optimise the quality at the end of its life, which in turn will have an impact on the uptake.

The high-end applications for recycled flexible packaging remain largely underexploited. Currently, only 13 percent of polyethylene packaging is used in closed-loop applications and therefore, is in practice circular. Our target is to increase the circularity of plastics and secure a sustainable use of resources.

Solutions are, nonetheless, there. The value chain has been actively working on the specific guidance that addresses the recyclability of plastic packaging.

RecyClass is an example of a platform that gathers raw material producers, converters, brand owner, recyclers and waste management specialists who cooperate on and elaborate scientifically based recyclability guidelines. This initiative was launched to help close the loop on plastic packaging, which can only be achieved via collective efforts of the entire industry.

The next step is, however, a harmonized approach to recyclability that is based on these scientifically established findings, and its uptake by the value chain to ultimately boost certainty among the industry and consumers.

Efforts and ambitions are present, but we must act urgently to tackle the plastic problem and create a better tomorrow.

Design for recycling and uptake of recycled materials must be paired in parallel with other measures.

Legislative support, along with increased quality of collection and sorting, efficient recycling and recycled content targets are equally crucial to genuinely transform and improve plastic waste management in the EU.

Share this page