PEPP 2019: Race to recycle in circular plastics push

12:23 PM | July 8, 2019 | Mark Thomas in Berlin

Plastics recycling is an integral link in the circular-economy value chain, and recyclers need to achieve and maintain viable commercial operations if the whole chain is not to collapse, delegates heard at the IHS Markit PEPP 2019: Polyethylene-Polypropylene Chain Global Technology and Business Forum, held recently in Berlin, Germany.

Plastics waste, sustainability, and the circular economy were constant themes throughout the event, reflecting their increasingly central role in the strategies of polyolefin players.

PLASTICS PANEL: Both chemical- and mechanical-recyling needed for “ambitious
targets,” said Marco Jansen (seated, second left), CE leader, Braskem Netherlands.

Recycling targets set by EU regulators represent a “huge increase,” according to Venetia Knuts-Spencer, secretary general of the plastics industry’s joint venture Polyolefin Circular Economy Platform. Regulators have sought voluntary industry pledges to generate a target of 10 million metric tons of recycled plastics to be in use for products in the EU market by 2025, but the required volume has not yet been pledged, she said.

A legal mandate directly relevant to polyolefins requires that by 2030 there must be an average 30% of recycled content for beverage containers, which is “clearly a very big challenge,” Knuts-Spencer said. The challenge is set to become even bigger. “The political goal is 50% of all plastics waste by 2030 to be recycled—in construction, electronic, automotive, textiles, agriculture ... a huge increase in sorting and recycling capacity. It’s estimated that would need an additional 500 sorting and recycling plants in Europe to meet this target,” she said.

The circular economy is fundamentally here to stay, with Europe seeing itself as the global leader, Knuts-Spencer added.

Mechanical- and chemical-recycling needed

Braskem has long been looking at how best to develop technologies, business models, and systems that fit into the recycling process, according to Marco Jansen, circular-economy leader at Braskem’s European subsidiary. “If you look at the extremely ambitious targets that have been set, both by voluntary commitments by different associations and companies, as well as by governments—especially here in Europe—related to recycling targets, we think that just mechanical recycling is not enough,” he said.

Chemical recycling is also not enough on its own “because there are limits and boundaries with how far you can go with it,” said Jansen. “It’s probably going to be something that will be fundamental to reach these goals, but it still has a big R&D challenge .... We’re trying to partner with different companies to make sure we find the most effective route to chemical recycling.”

From the brand owner’s perspective, Danone’s circular-economy manager, Feliks Bezati, said the company faces “a packaging paradox, in that we know we need the packaging, but at the same time we know that plastic packaging in the circular economy has some challenges.”

“Today we are mainly challenged on plastic waste and not climate change, because plastic waste is a tangible thing. You can see it. This is the linear approach,” said Bezati.

The circular economy is the opposite of this, inspired by nature where there is no waste, he said. “The waste of the system is the resource of another system. It’s about how we can design products to be the raw materials of tomorrow, by keeping the value of our materials in the economy and out of nature.”

The company is also focused on eliminating unnecessary packaging, and on innovating so that the packaging it does use is designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted, he added. Bezati cited Danone’s Evian bottled water brand, which has committed to use a recycler as its main plastics supplier by 2025.

Bezati also stressed the importance of improving the ability to recycle flexible polyolefins, which he described as challenging because there is currently not a market for the recycled material. “We believe it’s important that chemical recycling for flexibles can move forward because it’s not just for the sake of using recycled material, it’s also a way for chemical recycling to create a new market, especially for the flexible polyolefins,” he said.

Plastics waste is the new feedstock for producing plastics in the future, according to Günter Stephan, head of mechanical recycling/circular economy solutions at Borealis. The company has two post-consumer polyolefin recycling operations in Europe, both bought in the last three years.

“For a producer with a 50-year heritage of designing and engineering plastics, we know a lot about polymer. But it’s amazing how little we knew when it came to recycling. We were capable of building high-pressure plants in the desert, but we did not really understand what it was like to recycle plastics,” he said. A combination of mechanical- and chemical-recycling solutions are needed “until chemical recycling is on top of the technology,” Stephan added.

For the recycling value chain to work as a whole, “The money must be there. We just need to make sure it’s not just in one part, otherwise it doesn’t work,” Stephan said.