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The rigid plastics economy: Can industry recycle its way into full circularity?

October 30, 2022
Energy & Chemical Value Chain

Rigid plastics like PET bottles are recycled at a far higher rate than flexibles like PE films. However, achieving a full circularity for rigid plastics is a long way off. Lack of collection infrastructure, recycling facilities, contamination, poor design and market pricing have kept rigid plastic materials in a linear economy.

A report this year by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), which analyzed in detail the circularity of the most commonly used rigid plastic – PET – found that material is “lost at all stages” of the life cycle, and that producing quality recycled PET (rPET) is technically and economically far more challenging than virgin PET.

Gerhard Bräuer, product manager at Starlinger viscotec, tells PackagingInsights this is due mainly to the high standards set for F&B packaging within Europe.

“To recycle rigid plastics packaging back into recycled material of food grade standards is the main challenge from our point of view. This requires packaging to be ‘designed for recycling’ on the one hand, and recycling technology with high cleaning efficiency to process the post-consumer packaging waste on the other hand,” he says.

With recycled content targets in the EU looming, most companies scramble to obtain materials like rPET but face serious difficulties with sourcing and affording to meet upcoming requirements.

One of the main findings in ZWE’s report was that a lack of proper recycling technologies and availability makes circularizing PET, particularly for non-bottle applications, extremely difficult.

Companies like Starlinger are attempting to fill these gaps by creating machinery that guarantees rPET is suitable for F&B.

“As a provider of recycling plants, we developed a new technology that effectively decontaminates post-consumer packaging made from polystyrene, PP, PE and polyesters,” explains Bräuer.

“Our viscoZero technology is designed to produce recyclate for direct food contact, plus it gives maximum flexibility regarding input materials. The new plant makes it possible to create a loop without a downward spiral for the recycling of post-consumer and post-industrial waste,” he asserts.

Achieving heat stability
Starlinger has also developed an rPET material branded rPET100, which enables hot-fill products to achieve full recyclability.

The key challenge, explains Starlinger viscotec’s product manager Stefan Peherstorfer, is combining heat stability and full recyclability in new food-safe packaging since the choice of materials is limited to PET or rPET – a material that is not particularly heat-resistant.

“Packaging is truly [environmentally] sustainable if the same product can be made out of it after use. For food packaging, this is only possible with PET and rPET with the current European legislation.”

“Our experience with PET recycling technology was the perfect starting point to develop a packaging material for thermoformed packaging where heat-resistance does not impede full recyclability – rPET100 withstands temperatures of 100 degrees Celsius.”

The rPET problem
Regardless of technological advances by industry players, one of the central problems with circularizing PET is pricing. Recently, industry association UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe said that rPET was becoming “as expensive as gold.” This is due to a large number of major companies and FMCGs making pledges to increase recycled content in their products.

Other industries like fashion and automotive are buying rPET stocks, causing the price to skyrocket and availability for packagers to fall fast. UNESDA made a plea to the European Commission recently calling for priority access to rPET given that almost 70% of PET bottles are recycled through deposit return schemes (DRS), while the beverage industry only receives roughly 30% back.

UNESDA director general Nicholas Hodac tells PackagingInsights: “The current high demand for recycled PET from many industries that are not required to use food-grade PET has resulted in a severe shortage of this high-quality PET.”

“This makes it difficult for our sector to have access to sufficient high-quality rPET, which is why EU regulators should include a priority access mechanism or a right of first refusal in the forthcoming revision of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to grant us priority access to the recycled PET coming from the packaging we put on the European market,” he says.

Breaking the loop
There is no DRS for textiles or other industries, and packagers say they are put in an unfair situation while making an effort to circularize their economy – only to have the loop broken by other sectors, which typically then waste the material through landfill or other polluting means.

These industries – like fashion – are so lucrative they can raise the price of recycled rigid plastics beyond an affordable level for packaging companies – despite not requiring food-grade standard material. In Europe, rPET is reported at a 30%-plus premium over virgin.

With a minimum recycled content target of 50% by 2025, and the EU pledging to enforce targets, UNESDA fears many companies will be forced to close as rPET prices continue to rise.

Providing priority access to rPET for the packaging industry, given that it creates the material, would propel the circular economy, asserts Hodac.

“This legal tool [priority access] will help all beverage producers (big and small) to access the necessary amount of rPET they need to be able to meet the mandatory and voluntary recycled content targets,” he says.

“Furthermore, it will promote closed-loop recycling by preventing PET bottles from being turned into other non-food applications. It will also encourage other sectors to invest in the recyclability and recycling of their products.”

Reuse vs. recycling
Many campaigners are rallying against using rigid plastics altogether and say that reducing plastics should be the main industry goal. Organizations like Greenpeace, for example, have accused industry of using recycling as a smokescreen to continue pumping out environmentally polluting fossil-fuel-based material.

However, Hodac says a complete shift to reuse “does not make environmental sense.”

“It ignores the successful and massive investments and efforts that have been put into increasing recyclability and recycling of our packaging to create a world where packaging is a resource that is recycled multiple times in a closed-loop system.”

“It is crucial that reuse targets for beverage packaging are set in a realistic and reasonable way. Let’s not forget that the environmental impact of reusable beverage packaging, compared to its single-use circular alternative, may only prove positive in certain situations,” he concludes.

By Louis Gore-Langton


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