The use of recyclates begins with the correct separation of waste. (Image: Sigmund/unsplash)
Recyclates for packaging are in demand like never before
Before 1950, the world was still almost free of plastic. Today, we encounter plastic everywhere. As a packaging material, it is no longer possible to imagine life without plastic due to its many advantages. The downside: It is well known that most plastic packaging is only used once and ends up in the rubbish afterwards. But the material is a valuable resource that is currently becoming even more valuable in view of supply bottlenecks and shortages of raw materials. Therefore, there is a lot to be said for recycling and the use of recyclates in packaging production.
When we talk about recyclates, we always mean the secondary raw material that results from the recycling of plastics. This comes either from the leftovers of the plastics industry, such as punching scraps, or from defective batches and is then called post-industrial recyclate (PIR). This material is mostly of a single variety, not highly contaminated and therefore easy to recycle. Collected recyclables from private households represent the second source. This so-called post-consumer recyclate (PCR) must first be sorted by type, cleaned and then processed. But no matter what source recyclates come from, demand is very high right now, because using recycled plastic to make packaging material reduces the use of fossil raw materials and lowers energy requirements at the same time.
This offers new opportunities for the plastics industry, says Dr Isabell Schmidt, Managing Director Circular Economy at the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films (IK): "Like no other material, plastics are ultimately needed for the climate-neutral economy, whether as rotor blades for wind turbines or as energy- and resource-saving packaging for food and other products. We are working with intense focus on closing the cycles and rethinking our products." Last year, the industry association launched a study to determine the potential uses of recycled material in plastic packaging. According to this study, the volume could be increased from 475,000 tonnes to approximately 960,000 tonnes per year, which corresponds to about 22 per cent of the production volume. For this to actually work, it is not only necessary to ensure availability and quality; recycled materials must also become more economically attractive.
Recyclates are in short supply
Separate collection is the key prerequisite for the sufficient long-term availability of recyclates. "Recycling works best when plastic waste is collected separately, which the collection of PET beverage bottles with refundable deposits has clearly shown us", states Schmidt. "Here, recyclates are produced that even comply with the strict statutory requirements for contact with foods. In order to meet the need for raw materials of industries processing plastics in future, politicians must work to ensure that separate collection is significantly improved all over Europe and that landfills with plastic waste are completely banned."
Currently, however, the market for recycled PET, PE or PP is almost completely depleted, the costs have risen dramatically and are still rising. The makers of the digital procurement platform for recyclates, Cirplus, are following developments closely. As a global B2B online marketplace, Cirplus set out to make buying and selling recycled plastics as easy as possible. Users from over 100 countries are currently registered on the platform. Recycled PET and PE in particular are in demand worldwide. Since the beginning of the year, demand for recyclates has increased by 600 per cent, Cirplus said. The lower quantities currently on offer are offset by a sharp rise in prices. Cirplus actually has over one million tonnes of recycled material listed, many types of which are currently not available, however. Nevertheless, there is a lot going on in the industry right now, as more and more companies are investing in recycling. "We are also feeling this through the increasing number of our users, which include converters, recyclers and processors", says spokesperson Marie-Christin Bergmann. In addition, large companies are increasingly asking for recycled material. Many have committed themselves to using more recycled material in their products in the future and now want to increase their quotas.
The Cirplus sales platform has set itself the goal of making the purchase and sale of recyclates as uncomplicated as possible. (Image: Cirplus)
The plastics recycling industry could produce significantly more recyclates, experts say. However, each recycler in Europe can currently deliver different output qualities depending on the input stream of waste. This makes it difficult to supply the market with large quantities of consistent quality. Standardisation is intended to help produce more raw materials of guaranteed quality in future. Christian Schiller, Managing Director of Cirplus, was involved in developing the DIN SPEC 91446, a standard for recycling plastics that is also intended as a foundation for a future European Standard. "This path can only succeed through standardisation", he says.
Cosmetics and household cleaners have also made inroads. They are still treated like food when it comes to packaging them in recycled plastic. A consortium of brand owners, recycling companies, plastics manufacturers and processors wants to change that. Cospatox (Cosmetics, Packaging and Toxicology) has therefore spun off from the Recyclates Forum and aims to define safety standards for PCR in cosmetics and household packaging by 2023 – with an initial focus on polyolefins (PE and PP). The idea is that the high standards for food quality need not be met for a shampoo bottle or floor cleaning product; instead, a less stringent standard is sufficient here while still offering protection for consumers. The plan is for the entire industry to benefit from the consortium's work, including companies that have so far avoided using non-food PCR due to the lack of toxicological assessments and standardisation.
Grey is the new green
For cosmetics packaging in particular, a flawless appearance was always a priority. However, this cannot usually be achieved with the use of recycled material. For example, small inclusions may be visible or the colour of a package may vary depending on the recyclate used. Nowadays, however, manufacturers in this field are apparently also rethinking their position: The first few companies are already communicating their use of recycled materials as an expression of their sustainable actions.
The use of recycled materials is also increasing in the cosmetics sector. The German drugstore chain dm now uses supposedly unattractive grey recyclate packaging for many of its own brands and communicates this clearly on the label. (Image: dm)
In economically difficult times, recycling is a reason to invest, and the trend towards recyclates can no longer be reversed, as Billion president Korbinian Kiesl said in a recent VDMA interview. The French manufacturer of injection moulding machines has long been processing recycled material in its facilities and explains that the processing of recyclates has already gone from a vision to an everyday topic.
Use of recyclates in cooperation
There are currently many projects dealing with the use of recyclates. This spring, for example, PepsiCo launched a pilot project in which the shrink films for Pepsi bottles and cans are made from ten per cent recycled plastic from recycling bags and bins, 40 per cent recycled plastic from other sources and only half from virgin plastic. The aim is to switch regular production entirely to film-from-film. In future, the container film will no longer look as clear and bright as it has done up to now. "However, if people know and understand why the packaging looks different, they will put up with it", says Kai Klicker-Brunner of PepsiCo.
Interpack exhibitor Südpack has entered into a cooperation to increase the use of recyclates. Together with Carboliq, a specialist in raw material recovery, chemical recycling is to be established as an additional technology alongside the previously recognised processes. The joint venture serves the purpose of converting film waste generated during the processing of Südpack products into high-quality pyrolysis oil on an industrial scale in future.
Packaging manufacturer Greiner Packaging also relies on chemical recycling. For Nestlé, this Austrian company produces coffee capsules from post-consumer recyclates from LyondellBasell. The chemical company develops PCR-based polymers under the brand name CirculenRevive. The chemical enterprise uses a mass balance approach to determine the amount of recycled material used in the manufacturing process of CirculenRevive products. Via a sustainability declaration, the share of recycled material can then be apportioned to the final polymer.