While chemical recycling technologies are still far from mature, film producer Südpack, for one, is convinced that not only do they offer a way to meet the ambitious recycling targets set by the European Union but that they can also contribute to developing a closed-loop model that actually works.
The EU Commission is calling for the use of in total 10 million tonnes of recycled material in the European packaging industry by 2025. By 2030, all plastic packaging on the European market is to be reusable or recyclable at a low cost. In Germany, under the new packaging law, a total recycling quota of 70 percent by mass applies in respect of composite packaging as from 2022.
Chemical recycling makes it possible to re-use a much larger quantity of plastic: raw material from contaminated, mixed, multi-layer, or other non-recyclable plastics can also be recovered and used to make new plastic materials. These materials are also suitable to produce films for packaging sensitive products, such as food. Another advantage is that plastic made from chemically recycled material can be chemically recycled again without any loss of quality.
The technology involves a high-temperature process in which complex waste plastics are converted into raw materials such as pyrolysis oil or synthesis gas. These are ideal substitutes for conventional crude oil at the beginning of the chemical production chain. The share of recycled material in the final products is calculated using a mass-balance method verified by an independent auditor. The materials have the same high quality and performance characteristics as do new products.
These benefits have led Südpack to explore the potential of the technology more closely. The company is increasingly focusing on chemical recycling of plastic waste and developing high-tech packaging films from the recovered raw materials. These raw materials have virgin-like properties, making them suitable for the packaging of products with high quality and hygiene requirements, including foodstuffs.
“As a market and innovation leader, we’re acutely aware of our social and environmental responsibility. That’s why we’re working hard on developing concepts, technologies and concrete solutions that save resources and protect the environment,” explained Carolin Grimbacher, managing partner and responsible for Research & Development at Südpack.
At present, packaging made of 100% recycled plastic is not viable for sensitive goods such as food and medical products. The necessary legal framework is not in place, and the materials do not provide the special product protection and barrier properties required.
“We won’t be able to do without composite films for food packaging in the future, even if we can use more and more recycled materials. That’s because the ‘enhanced’ recycling required by the German Packaging Law is not yet possible with these packaging materials. So we see chemical recycling as a useful addition to mechanical recycling and as a more sustainable alternative to thermal utilization or landfill,” said Grimbacher.
Already, the first tentative steps have been taken with the development of a multilayer film using chemically recycled PA from BASF, used in a packaging for Zottarella mozzarella products from the Gourmet Dairy Zott. This cut the share of primary fossil raw materials by around 25 percent compared to conventional materials. The company also recently demonstrated the packaging developed for the poultry sausage brand Gutfried, which consisted of about two thirds chemically recycled plastic.
Carolin Grimbacher: “With chemical recycling, we can already significantly improve the resource efficiency of our solutions without any concessions in terms of functionality and safety.”
However, chemical recycling has a way to go to truly become an accepted waste management solution. Closed re-use cycles or recycling streams must be established for flexible packaging. Plus, the regulatory framework will also play a key role in the process of moving towards market maturity. Developers need to find out how far chemical recycling and the mass-balance method can go toward meeting statutory recycling quotas. Both technologies must still be granted legal recognition.
Meanwhile, Südpack is pushing ahead. “We’re committed to our goal of better, higher quality, and cheaper plastics recycling on an industrial scale,” said Grimbacher. The current trends are just the start.