A new study released by Plastics Recyclers Europe shows that PE film recycling has the potential to contribute significantly towards reaching to the overall 50% recycling rate for plastic packaging in 2025.
The study, produced by sustainability consultancy Eunomia, examined the main trends in the current market for flexible films in Europe. It also looked at a number of key market impacts and the challenges faced by. It concludes with an outline of how a future flexible films recycling chain might look.
The data are intended to provide a benchmark for future analyses, as PRE will be repeating the study every two years. The study found that every year, a total of 15 Mt of flexible films are put on the EU market, of which 9 Mt are polyethylene.
Currently, only 23% of all waste PE films are recycled, leaving ample scope for improvement. However, films in, for example, the household collection stream - roughly 40% of all polyethylene film waste generated in the EU – present major quality challenges due to the diversity of materials and greater contamination from organics, inks and multilayer materials.
More support is essential to make the recycling of more challenging flexible film streams viable.
‘For collected PE flexible films streams (particularly from households and agriculture), there are greater challenges associated with reaching higher-quality output and wider end-market applications than for other polymers (e.g. PET). There is therefore a need to improve the fate of flexible films in collected streams, through a focus on tackling quality challenges, increasing demand in some key product sectors and ensuring adequate European processing capacity’, the authors write.
The level and variability of virgin prices of PE for flexible films mean that the costs of recycling household flexible films to a higher quality typically exceed the revenues this may generate.
Remedying this will require major investments in recycling capacity and technology, next to increased separate collection, improving the quality of sorted waste and enhancing the recyclability of the collected films through better design.
Multilayered film structures, for example, are a significant design for recycling issue that strongly impacts the process and quality of recyclates.
But end-markets are just as important, the report pointed out.
“The high-end applications for rPE remain largely underexploited,” commented PRE president Ton Emans, PRE President, a conclusion borne out by the results of this report, with data showing substantial potential for increasing the use of recycled content in most major film market sectors.
The market for polypropylene (PP) flexible packaging is around 2.5 Mt according to the data presented in the study. This, too, was found to be an underrepresented recycling stream.
The report points out that today, PP flexible films are often not sorted in a separate waste stream. This means that viable sorting and recycling routes still need to be developed.
As the report points out, various pieces of legislation have come into force to support the recycling of plastics. However, various policy and R&D gaps remain to be filled before the quantity of material collected that can also feed high-quality recycling output into more mature markets can be increased.
Certification, sorted packaging bale quality standards, further advances in technology and the adoption of a common approach to assessing recyclability are all cited as directions for the future. This, however, will require collaboration between industry and European policymakers.