There’s a steadily growing demand for more environmentally friendly products. Politicians are also calling for much higher quotas for the use of recycled material. Plastics processors are therefore already facing fierce competition for sufficient quantities of high-quality recycled materials. Not just procurement is a challenge for manufacturers; processing the recycled material also calls for in-depth expertise. Marc Stachura, Director of Product Management Recycling at Meraxis, lists five rules for the successful use of recycled material.
Five rules for plastic processors: Using recycled materials sustainably
In the European Union, almost 23 percent of plastic packaging must be recyclable, according to the EU's Circular Economy Action Plan. By 2030, the quota will be raised to 55 percent – more than twice as high. Thus plastic producers must now step up their game and use more recyclates. The problem with this: There’s often not enough high-quality recycled material available due to decentralised market structures. This causes shortages of raw materials and price fluctuations. So let's take a closer look at important rules plastics processing industries should follow to ensure the use of recycled materials succeeds.
Rule 1: Secure the best sources.
Processors should be very familiar with the recyclate market so that they can still find the right supply partner. In fact, they would have to examine potential suppliers or even conduct extensive audits to ensure that the raw materials are actually processed in the desired quality and quantity. This approach is especially costly for small and medium-sized enterprises. The research is time-consuming and requires technical knowledge about the production of recycled materials.
It’s therefore advisable to work with a distribution partner who specializes both in the procurement of prime and recycled material and has access to a worldwide logistics and distribution network. Unlike pure recyclate manufacturers who can only supply what they currently produce, such distributors typically have a tight network of audited supplier partners for regranulates and recompounds. This enables plastics processors to ensure that they actually receive recyclates in the necessary quantities and at the best quality. A supplier that also offers prime material has another advantage: there is a broad portfolio available for any application with the desired materials. In addition, suitable alternatives can be selected quickly in the event of supply bottlenecks.
Rule 2: Pay attention to material properties.
When processing secondary material, processors need to make sure that the recyclates have a similar quality to the prime material that was used previously. For industrial mass production, it’s also important that the quality remains the same. However, because recyclates naturally differ from one another depending on their origin, different batches are homogenized. This means: They’re mixed so that large quantities of consistent quality are produced. Precise testing and initial sampling are essential because recyclates from different origins are not comparable in terms of their properties. This initial testing is a technical process for material characterisation that precisely tests whether recyclates are suitable for the intended use.
Rule 3: Develop the right formulation.
Material development starts with a detailed definition of the technical properties. The proportions of recyclates, prime materials and other ingredients must be matched with each other in line with the application. This needs to be done because the requirements of the product differ depending on the application. Additives can be used as needed to improve the properties. When selecting a supplier, processors should therefore ensure that their suppliers are able to develop such formulations based on the specific application. This allows processors to match their requirements directly with the distributor. Converters can thus not only coordinate certain technical properties in detail, but also recreate on colours in nuances.
Rule 4: Select the appropriate production processes and machines.
It’s also important to match process technologies, tools and the right materials. The parameters of production machinery - such as material throughputs, cycle times or processing temperatures - must be set individually for each material to prevent faulty production. This is especially true when recycled materials are used: Processors should use the most homogeneous raw material mass possible during production, so that it stays constant throughout the production process. Ideally, this means that only one basic adjustment needs to be made to the machine.
To ensure an optimal product, processors should make sure that the distributor offers comprehensive technical services as well as on-site support. Technical experts should help select the most efficient production processes and tools, and set individual parameters correctly to achieve the desired result. This is especially relevant for companies that require technical advice in the process.
Rule 5: Demonstrate sustainability.
The interest in products that are as environmentally friendly as possible has increased significantly, especially among consumers. The use of recycled materials has long been an additional sales and marketing argument. That's why it may be advisable to indicate on the end product that recyclates were used. Recognised certificates such as EuCertPlast are suitable for this purpose. EuCertPlast is an EU-wide certification programme that focuses on the traceability of plastic materials throughout the recycling process and supply chain.
The use of recycled materials must be well thought out. It requires extensive process engineering know-how. But in the end, it is worth it, as it brings the polymer industry a big step closer to a closed-loop economy.