A report compiled by sustainability consultancy Eunomia signals a number of trends in PET collection and sorting. One of the more important developments described is that of the growing use of rPET in bottle-to-bottle recycling, mainly in response to manufacturer demand. The PET packaging sector is moving towards higher levels of circularity, write the authors, with individual converters demonstrating what is possible, among others, by producing water bottles using 100% rPET from bottles, and trays from 95% rPET.
According to the report, which was produced in collaboration with EFBW, the voice of the bottled water industry; Petcore Europe, the association representing the complete PET value chain in Europe; and PRE, the European association for plastics recyclers, significant improvements have also been achieved in recycling processes. As a result of this improved quality of the recycled materials, rPET could account for as much as 55% of total converter PET demand in the EU by 2030, up from 24% in 2018.
This holds particularly true for food-grade rPET used in bottle-to-bottle processes, where incentives such as the producers’ voluntary pledges and rPET content targets set in the EU Single Use Plastics Directive (25% by 2025) are set to further accelerate its production.
Moreover, PET bottles are easier to target and collect through deposit schemes, leading to high-quality bales that can be more readily sorted and reprocessed into rPET.
For PET trays, collection and sorting rates are much lower. PET trays are more costly to reprocess per tonne of output, and there are far fewer separate PET tray reprocessing lines. Going forward, better collection and sorting systems are essential to capture PET trays - particularly significant given that the growth of consumption of PET film and sheeting is outpacing that of PET bottles. With more developed reprocessing routes, PET trays could be expected to be collected and recycled at a similar rate to overall plastic packaging and reach a 50% recycling rate by 2025 and 55% by 2030.
The report also discussed the various other challenges confronting the PET recycling industry, noting, among others, that by 2030, the EU-28 will require double the current EU28+2 rPET reprocessing capacity to process the tonnage of PET expected to be collected if European targets are met.
In addition, to achieve the 90% EU separate collection target for beverage bottles and meet the expanding demand, well-thought-out and harmonised collection schemes must be implemented with the help of local and national authorities.
Also, a common approach to recyclability and product design must be established, building on initiatives such as EPBP and RecyClass. RecyClass engages producers with practical, product-specific recyclability assessments, and has now in conjunction with Petcore Europe, developed protocols for PET trays; EPBP has published a test protocol for the recyclability of innovative PET bottles.
Additionally, responding to consumer awareness, brands are making commitments to integrating recycled content into their products. There is currently no certification process in place to verify the claims made by brands and producers to guarantee the quality of the recycled material they are incorporating. Increasing the trust in and traceability of the recycled materials, for example by building on schemes such as EuCertPlast4 - an existing quality certification scheme based on the European Standard EN 15343:2007 created by PRE, EPRO, EuPC and Recovinyl - and by establishing an EU-wide certification for recycled materials would ensure the optimal uptake of rPET.
Lastly, the role of chemical recycling in moving all PET products towards 100% recyclability and allowing high levels of recycled content without colour issues is expected to require additional sorting activities that will need to be integrated into existing mechanical recycling operations. Products that are currently difficult to recycle - trays, multi-layer, contaminated packaging materials - could be recycled through these processes, leading to a higher recycled content of PET above that which can be achieved by mechanical processing alone. With the refinement of the purification steps, monomers of suitable purity will be able to be used in production units for virgin polymer, enhancing the ability for a fully closed-loop recycling system for PET.