Chemical recycling; the solution to meet the EU recycling targets? Recyclability of plastics

There is growing pressure in the industry and society to improve the recyclability of plastics and to establish closed-loop recycling systems for flexible packaging materials. AFP, one of Europe’s most innovative film manufacturers, wants to play a major role in this transition. The company is increasingly focusing on using recycled content in its innovative microlayer high performance load security films and multilayer food packaging films. An article on the recyclability of plastics.

Sustainable vision

AFP is investigating both the use of mechanically recycled and chemically recycled materials. The advantage of chemically recycled raw materials is that these materials have virtually the same properties as virgin polymers and are therefore suitable for packaging products with high quality and hygiene requirements, such as food contact packaging films.
These activities are reflecting the AFP sustainability vision with AFP as a leader in sustainable packaging solutions that improve the quality of life by ensuring quality, safety and minimal environmental impact hereby focusing on reducing the CO2 footprint of AFP itself and its partners.

 Ambitious targets for the recyclability of plastics

Approximately two third of all packaging for food and beverages is made out of plastic. Of which currently only about 40% is being recycled in Europe and another 40% is used for energy recovery. The EU and national governments have set ambitious targets for the industry regarding the volumes and percentages of packaging materials that should come back in packaging products. The main target for 2025 is that a volume of 10 million tons of recycled plastic has to be recycled in new plastic products. And by 2030 all plastic packaging within the EU has to be reusable or recyclable.

AFP has the opinion that, besides mechanical recycling, chemical recycling of plastic is a promising approach to meet these targets. Food manufacturers and packaging companies could benefit from using the chemically recycled material as it complies with regulations. The use of mechanically recovered recycled material is heavily regulated due to strict hygiene requirements, especially in the post-consumer packaging market.This is an essential aspect for AFP, a company that prioritizes product safety not only for consumers, but also for the environment and is committed to sustainability. As a result AFP dedicates much effort in the development of new ideas, solutions and concepts to protect the environment and natural resources.

Chemical recycling (also called feedstock of molecular recycling) allows the transformation of all types of plastic waste back into its original chemical components. By creating a new, secondary raw material that offers the same quality as virgin feedstock, chemical recycling can help to close the loop and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. This means that the process can recover raw material from contaminated, mixed, multi-layer, laminated or other plastics which currently cannot be recycled. A strong advantage is also that plastic made from chemically recycled material can be chemically recycled over and over again without any loss of quality. By reducing the use of fossil fuels as feedstock, chemical recycling helps to increase the sustainability of our society and safeguard our planet. By giving value to all plastic waste, it will also play an importing role in the fight against littering.

4 methods

There are four methods of chemical recycling, which are substantially different in terms of waste input and obtained products:

1. Depolymerisation turns mono plastic (like PET bottles) back into monomers, which can be re-polymerised into new PET-based products.

2. Solvolysis (dissolution) is used to break down certain plastics like expanded polystyrene (EPS) into monomers with the aid of solvents.

3. Pyrolysis converts mixed plastics into tar oil which can be cracked down and further refined for new plastics production.

4. Gasification is able to process unsorted, uncleaned plastic waste and turn it into syngas, which can be used to build bigger building blocks for new
polymers.

The last two of these – pyrolysis and gasification – transform plastics, and most of their additives and contaminants into basic chemicals.
In theory, any kind of plastic waste can be converted. To meet the same quality standards as primary feedstock, some pre-sorting of non-organic waste or purification of the output material may be necessary. If the resulting oil and gas are used for chemical production, the final plastic products will be identical to those produced from conventional feedstock.

The great advantage of chemically recycled plastics is that the quality is comparable to virgin plastic and therefore food approval is again possible. The disadvantage is that it is complex and expensive due to the various chemical operations required and the environmental benefits achieved compared to virgin material are less than with mechanical recycling.

The following considerations with respect to Chemical recycling must be mentioned:

For the time being food or medical packaging made of mechanically recycled plastic is not to be expected. The necessary legal framework is simply not in place. Moreover, the materials will, in many cases, not provide the product protection and barrier properties as required. Consequently for certain food or medical packaging applications, laminated film structures will remain. For these flexible packaging applications chemical recycling can be seen as a useful addition. Also in light of the EU 2030 requirement for packaging to be 100% reusable or recyclable.

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