Plastics collection and technical feasibility for recycling has developed tremendously in Europe, according to Messe Düsseldorf, organiser of the K 2016 trade show. But experts still say that too little waste material is used instead of virgin material.
Technologically, plastics recycling is not a problem at all today. In-house recycling has now become established across industry. For plastics processors who work with pure-grade raw materials, the waste-free factory has become routine. And for post-consumer wastes, there are increasingly mature reutilisation strategies, enabling the regranulate produced with them to substitute virgin material without problems.
According to PlasticsEurope, the association of plastics producers, plastics consumption in the entire European industry reached 47.8 million tonnes, with about half, amounting to 25.8 million tonnes, being collected after use. PlasticsEurope investigated the collection rates in the 28 European Union states plus Norway and Switzerland and found that there are still differences.
Although a ban on the landfilling of plastics residuals has been announced in nine countries, the proportion going to landfill in the other countries is still very high - as much as 70%. Overall, of the total collected residuals in Europe, about two thirds are now reutilized, while 30.8% are land filled. Of the plastics residuals that are reutilized, about half – 7.7 million tonnes – is recycled and the rest is incinerated to generate energy.
The largest volume: polyolefins
With about 9.5 million tons of polypropylene, 8 million tonnes of low and linear low density polyethylene and 6 million tonnes of high and medium density PE, polyolefins are by quantity the plastics most used in Europe, collectively accounting for about half of overall consumption. If these are pure-grade residues, they can be efficiently processed and there are numerous recycling businesses devoted to polyolefin recycling.
The situation is more complicated when PE and PP are mixed, as they are very hard to separate because of their similar density, and NIR sorting processes are today state of the art. However, PE and PP can also be processed together into high-grade products.
PET has room for growth
PET, most of which is used for the production of bottles, accounts for almost 7 percent (or about 3.1 million tons) of total plastics consumption in Europe annually. Overall, the 30 countries of Europe achieve an average collection rate of 57%. In 2014, for example, 1.75 million tons of post-consumer PET wastes were collected. However, it is almost exclusively bottles that are collected, usually in dedicated collection methods. Although it was originally the goal to return the collected bottle flakes to bottle production, the industry has sought and found customers in other areas. For film/sheet manufacturers, post-consumer bottle flakes have become increasingly interesting, and in 2014 they used the biggest share – 34% – of the collected residuals in their industry segment. Almost 30% of the flakes were used in blow moulding applications, 26% in the fibre industry and the rest for packing straps and other products.
“Production of the regranulate required in injection moulding applications for the production of new bottles for food or non-food contact is currently low because of the sharp drop in the price of virgin material,” explains Elfriede Hell, Head of Recycling Technology at Austrian plant manufacturer Starlinger. Unlike used bottles, post-consumer trays and films usually end up being incinerated for energy or even on landfills. “But things have recently been changing. We have a number of customers interested specifically in projects for recycling trays and films,” adds Elfriede Hell.
PVC achieves high utilisation rates
The recycling of PVC, a material whose properties have made it indispensable in the building sector, has developed very encouragingly in the last few years. The recycled PVC is put to use particularly in building applications, e.g. in new profiles and pipes, as well as in horticulture and agriculture.
Composites often unsuitable for recycling
While post-consumer products made of pure polymers lend themselves well to reprocessing, the situation for composite products consisting of two or more raw materials is entirely different. Michael Scriba, mtm-plastics Managing Director and member of Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE) and of Bundesverband Sekundärrohstoffe und Entsorgung [Federation for Secondary Resources and Disposal] (bvse), is therefore calling for the recycling-friendly design of the packages that contribute a large proportion of post-consumer wastes. Here it is particularly important to dispense with fillers like chalk in PE and PP packages as much as possible, avoid plastics-paper composites, use pigmentation in moderation and make sure that the density of all products is well clear of 1 g/cm³ so that separation on the basis of density is possible.
At the same time, efforts are being made in the industry to develop reutilisation strategies for mixed wastes. Trenntechnik Ulm is pursuing a very exciting approach by developing a chemical separation process for PE/PA composite films and building a unique production plant with a capacity of 10 tonnes per day.
It can be assumed that recycling rates will continue to rise in the years to come, as there is strong demand for recyclate for both environmental and economic reasons. Marine litter, i.e. the pollution of the seas with wastes, has internationally highlighted the irresponsible treatment of wastes particularly in newly industrialized countries and supports the demands of other consumers for the sustainable treatment of resources.
This article was contributed by Messe Düsseldorf, the organizer of the K fair, traditionally the world's largest plastics trade show. The K fair is held every three years in Düsseldorf, Germany. K 2016 will take place from 19-26 October. For information, see www.k-online.com.