With the growing trend towards making plastic circular, recycled polymers are continuing to take market share from their virgin counterparts in the European market. Although this trend is on the rise, the use of recycled materials in new articles faces some constraints. By Plastics Recyclers Europe
With approximately 7% of the demand for recycled plastic from the converting sector, there is definitely room for improvement. Recycled polymers are widely used in packaging (61%) which remains their biggest market. Nevertheless, new sectors and applications are opening up. That is the case for building & construction products or electronic and automotive sectors, for example.
Circular business models
The good news is that circular business models are on the rise. Initiatives like Circular Plastics Alliance (CPA), are helping to incentives them. CPA boosted the voluntary commitments and targets of the different industry actors which will contribute toward the uptake of 10 million tons of recycled plastic in Europe by 2025. These commitments cover a range of different actions including increasing recyclability - with the retailers, converters and brand owners being now, more than ever before, focused on the integration of the recycled polymers in their products
Legislative framework – the incentive
Robust legislation plays a crucial role in improving plastic waste management and boosting the use of recycled plastic. The objectives stemming from the Plastic Strategy, including, the new Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) are a good example here, like recycled content targets for beverage bottles – with a minimum recycled polymers inclusion of 25% in mineral and soft drink bottles by 2025 and 30% by 2030, introduced by SUPD have increasingly driven demand for food contact recyclate.
This is visible, on one hand, in the high demand for these materials, where the share of food-grade rPET in PET beverage bottle production is set to continue to grow rapidly, and on the other, in the growing investments in recycling capacities. There is undoubtedly a steady move towards the circularity of the PET industry in Europe.
And new regulations that will further the sustainable production of plastics are being worked on as we speak. For example, the current revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive looks into introducing design for recycling along with mandatory recycled content for a wider set of plastic products. Meanwhile, the re-shaping of the Waste Framework Directive targets a deep dive into separate collection measures and wider harmonisation.
The objective of improving plastic production is covered as well within the Sustainable Products Initiative whose goal is to significantly improve circularity, energy performance and other environmental & sustainability aspects of products on the EU market. One of the key goals of this document is to introduce mandatory recycled content for a wider set of plastic products. Since polymers are most widely used in non-food applications today, looking at other applications than packaging this revision is necessary to boost the market for recycled materials.
Uptake of recyclates - the full potential
With the Single Use Plastic Directive and the 50% recycling targets, Europe in 2025 will see the most comprehensive legislation on plastic in the world fully operational. However, the positive effects of these measures are visible already now.
For example, the new study for collection, recycling capacity and production of PET for 2020 shows increases - in comparison to 2018 with the majority of the new capacities which have been recently installed being the decontamination lines to convert the washed bottles or trays to food-grade pellets. Equally the flexible film recycling capacity grew by almost 10% in a year despite the COVID pandemic.
Although, these are positive developments there are still some constraints to achieving the EU targets. The first, is the collection of material needed to hit the targets, both the SUPD one as well as the 55% plastic packaging recycling target by 2030.
For PET, specifically, the separate collection will play a key role to provide enough rPET food-grade pellets together with the growing capacities required to reprocess this material.
In parallel, the quality of plastic products that are put on the market must improve. This can be achieved by implementing the design for recycling principles to match the qualities and specifications needed in a variety of sectors and especially the high-end applications.
The move towards circular plastic products can be reached when combining increased separate collection with recyclability of plastic products and a supportive legislative framework to, additionally, drive the necessary investments.
The recent positive changes in the market are cause for optimism when it comes to the uptake of recycled plastics. The commitment of recyclers is clear – while much work remains ahead, the past successes are the foundation upon which the circular plastics’ future can be built.