PEPP 2019 preview: Tackling the recycling challenge, innovating amid plastics sustainability disruption

16:46 PM | June 20, 2019 | Mark Thomas

Cross-industry cooperation will be vital in solving today’s plastics recycling challenges, together with the need to let science prevail and show that plastics are the most sustainable solution, according to Willem De Vos, CEO at Campine (Beerse, Belgium).

“Campine is a metallurgical and chemical company, and our recycling processes benefit from a combination of both,” he says. “We saw that combining and mixing processes and technologies from different industries created more opportunities for additional recovery of materials,” says De Vos, who will be speaking at IHS Markit’s Polyethylene-Polypropylene Chain Global Technology and Business Forum (PEPP 2019) in Berlin, Germany, on 25-27 June.

The plastics industry must also do more to counter the perception that its materials are the least sustainable solution, De Vos says. “There are multiple examples where plastic bottles are replaced by glass, which is heavier, has a lower packing density and needs to be cleaned,” he adds. “If one looks at the Life Cycle Analysis [LCA], then glass never wins and thus plastics is the best option for the environment. The same can be said from examples where cardboard replaces plastic packaging. The amount of chemicals and water used to produce decent cardboard makes its LCA often worse than plastic. We need to try to bring the scientific proof to the surface.”

Campine is investing in a plant to recycle polypropylene (PP) from car-battery casings, he says. It currently recycles 80,000 metric tons/year of car batteries, recovering the lead and the acid, and using the plastics as energy feedstock in the recycling process. From 2021, the company will separate the PP from the casings before recovering the lead, and use the recycled PP in its specialty chemicals division, producing masterbatches based on the recovered additives.

Campine started as a metallurgical company, and De Vos says the metals industry is “miles ahead” of the plastics industry in terms of logistics and technology to separate and recover its materials. “The petrochemical industry has, in the last two decades, been accelerating its R&D efforts and technology developments in recycling, mostly under pressure of public opinion and consumer expectations. There’s still a long way to go, and we will need investment in lots of new assets,” he says.

Disruption “the new normal” in Europe

Disruption from plastics sustainability "is the new normal in Europe. All the stakeholders need to realign their business model to embrace the change and turn it into profitable opportunity,” says Kaushik Mitra, IHS Markit director/polyolefins, EMEA.

Recently-announced, plastics-related changes to the Basel Convention are regarded as a game-changer, and PEPP 2019 will be ideal for attendees to understand the implications of the convention, Mitra says.

The main change is a proposal that exports of well-sorted waste material, particularly single-resin loads, will be able to continue, though they will likely be subject to additional inspections to determine that they are clean. “However, when it comes to containers of mixed-plastic bales, movement will be more difficult. They will be subject to new notification and consent rules by sending and receiving parties. The first significant shift is that a large portion of the scrap plastic shipments that were previously exempt from Basel rules will now come under the purview of the treaty,” says Mitra.

Solid plastic waste is currently exempt from any Basel controls, allowing virtually all commonly recycled plastic resins, or a mixture of resins, to be shipped without having to meet any specific Basel requirements, Mitra says. “However, the Basel decision will mean exemptions will only be made for shipments almost exclusively consisting of a single resin type. Containers will be exempt from the rules if they contain mixtures of plastic wastes, consisting of polyethylene, polypropylene, or polyethylene terephthalate, provided they are destined for separate recycling of each material, in an environmentally sound manner and almost free from contamination and other types of waste.”

Additionally, significant investment and technology innovation "is required to help companies achieve the rapidly-approaching EU mandates, and we will explore these topics in detail at PEPP 2019,” says Nick Vafiadis, IHS Markit vice president/plastics.

PEPP is Europe’s longest-running annual plastics technology and business conference.