IHS Markit PEPP 2020: Circular solution to plastics waste crisis faces numerous hurdles

18:08 PM | September 3, 2020 | Rebecca Coons

Addressing the plastics waste crisis and achieving the circular economy in the European Union through recycling will require new technologies and significant collaboration and investment, say speakers at a waste management and recycling session during the IHS Markit PEPP 2020 Online: Annual Polyethylene-Polypropylene Chain Global Technology & Business Forum, currently underway. Although advances have already been made thanks to technology innovation, investment in infrastructure, and sustainability-focused brands, many challenges remain, largely around aligning regulations, collection, sorting, logistics, conversion, downstream processing, and consumer acceptance to create an economically viable supply chain. 

Martin Wiesweg, Executive Director Polymers EMEA, IHS Markit, believes that Europe’s target of recycling 50% of plastic packaging waste by 2025 will be a challenge for industry, but notes that it is attracting billions of dollars in investments.  Currently, about half of Europe’s PE films—about 9 million tons of waste material from the packaging, agriculture, and commercial markets—is collected. 

But, Wiesweg notes, yields are mixed. “Ag films often contain dirt, so they are high contaminated. Yields there are about 45%,” he says. “Household waste is similarly difficult, and it is very hard to differentiate between PE and PP films. There, about half is recycled.” Commercial waste fares better, with efficient collection and relatively “clean” materials. Yields there are above 80%. “Taken together, PE film yield efficiency is almost 70%, so about 1.8 million tons [of material] is returning to the market,” he says. 

Wiesweg also noted that 2020 has been an “awful year” for recycling. “Virgin materials have been at extremely low prices and it is very hard for recycled materials to be competitive,” he says. Bottle-to-bottle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling is supported by strong, recycled-content commitments from brand owners like Coca-Cola, who have remained steadfast to their targets even amid COVID-19, but flake PET for sheet markets “are seeing very difficult times.” 

Looking ahead, the EU plastics tax, which comes into effect 1 January 2021 and adds an €0.8 per kilogram tax on nonrecycled plastic packaging waste, will change these economics. Actual imposition of the tax will vary by member country, Wiesweg adds. “We don’t see a single European solution.” 

Mark Morgan, Vice President, Chemicals Consulting, IHS Markit, says the circular economy concept is at an “embryonic” stage, with promising technologies but uncertainty of how the supply chain will come together to make it a reality. He notes that chemical recycling—the processing of waste plastics into other chemical building blocks for plastics—has been successfully deployed at small scale. “These units are 20,000 m.t. per year, but if you compare that to the amount of naphtha you need for a typical cracker, it’s less than 1%,” he says. “In terms of economic impact, it’s very small, but it’s a start.” 

If legislation gets aggressive and cracker operators find themselves facing a 10% cracking mandate, technology and supply chain will have to “step up,” Morgan says, adding that some chemical recycling technologies have the potential to be scaled to that level. “But it also begs the question—what about upstream? Logistics? How do we get the plastic waste out of homes and to a sorting center at such scale? I am also personally concerned about the fact that there has to be a viable business case for everyone in the chain—cracker operators, customers, logistics, sorters, they all have different business models. Scale and logistics together with the right technology will be required.” 

Manica Ulcnik-Krump, head,  Recycled Resource, at recycling services provider Interseroh (Cologne, Germany) discussed the challenges related to mechanical recycling of mixed plastics and downstream limitations. “Markets for recycled materials often require high quality and adjustments of properties with additives,” she notes. “It poses the question: Is it really possible to offer the market high-value materials from post-consumer waste?” 

There is also a misconception that unlimited amounts of certain materials exist.  

“There can be many different polyolefins in a waste steam. In Germany, we have well-established collection schemes collecting 2.5 million tons of light packaging waste [annually],” of which about 8% is polypropylene," Ulcnik-Krump says. “We also tend to have a lower yield because light packaging waste is very contaminated with organics.” In reality, only about 206,000 tons of recycled PP is available, she adds.  

Brand owner expectations of recycled plastics is also “really far from what is possible to offer,” Ulcnik-Krump adds. “You will have different colors and qualities.” Brand owners often want white or transparent materials, but that is only available in very small quantities. “We are always asked about bright colors or transparent materials, and I have to be honest, we just don’t have it.”  Also, recycled post-consumer waste can never be recycled into food-grade material because of EU legislation requiring 100% traceability.

When asked if a circular economy is possible in the EU, Ulcnik-Krump says the current targets are very ambitious. “There is no issue with the technology, it exists. The collection schemes exist, especially in Western Europe. The difficulty is the commercial aspect. The material needs to be collected, sorted, ground, washed and reprocessed. The cost of mechanically recycled plastics is not the cost of the material—it is the cost of the process. And with extremely low prices for virgin material, it is difficult to compete. But when the recycled material is good quality, sustainable companies are willing to pay.” 

Jairo Paternina, Senior Consultant, Jenike & Johanson, Inc, a provider of powder and bulk solids handling, processing, and storage technology, also discussed the challenges for processors of mechanically recycled plastics, such as the existence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “If you are not operating well [and stripping VOCs], you will have high residuals going to extrusion, which can create safety risks and expose a company to noncompliance and environmental penalties.” Uniformity is also an issue. “If you shred, you have all sorts of particle sizes and interlocking problems,” Paternina says. “ It is difficult to design a good handling systems for non-uniform material, unlike virgin pellets. Significant issues with equipment handling these types of materials can cause big headaches and stop a plant from reaching nameplate design.” 

 Learn more about sustainability and circularity initiatives in the plastic value chain during the Global Plastic Summit 2020, Online 21 - 23 October.