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Achieving a circular economy begins with the proper sorting of plastic packaging

Sorting waste
“High-quality sorting of plastic packaging waste will lead to increased productivity and improved cost efficiency of the recycling processes, resulting in the production of high-quality recyclates,” according to Plastics Recyclers Europe (Brussels), which has published related guidance.

A big problem that contributes to low recycling rates both in Europe and North America is the difficulty of sorting. At the consumer level, it requires looking for the triangular symbol, knowing if the local recycler takes all seven numbers or only a few of them, and which ones. If there were an easier way to sort recyclable products, recycling rates would certainly go up.

Plastic packaging represents the biggest share of European plastic demand. However, today only 42% of plastic packaging waste is recycled in Europe, according to Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE; Brussels). To help boost that number, PRE issued guidance for recycling in order to recapture the true value of packaging and transform it into new high-quality products.

To increase the amount and, more importantly, the quality of recyclate, the industry must focus on optimizing reprocessing of this valuable resource. The quality of the recyclate is directly affected by the quality of the sorting practices, said PRE’s information. It is critical to the recycling process to ensure that the value of packaging materials treated at the sorting facilities is fully optimized to ultimately secure high-quality input for recyclers. To optimize output quality, plastic packaging should be automatically sorted through a series of consecutive steps, said PRE, increasing the efficiency as well as the effectiveness of establishing highly refined waste streams.

Removing contamination and sorting packaging according to polymer types, and optionally by color and product categories, is a prerequisite for securing high-quality recycling input. Furthermore, the guidance advocates standardization as well as harmonization of sorting practices, as this would ensure a more uniform and reliable flow of material toward recycling facilities.

A recent report from AMI Consulting, Plastic Caps and Closures: The European Market 2019, notes that the European closures industry has been proactive for well over a decade in reducing the use of virgin material in both neck finish and closures. Lightweighting has been the most important driver of change. The last industry step-change within beverage closures was the shift toward one-piece beverage caps away from two-piece caps, coinciding with the adoption of the PCO1881 bottle-neck standard. Along with a reduction in the use of raw materials, savings are achieved in energy consumption and CO2 emissions are reduced.

The focus of the European sustainability agenda is on single-use plastics (SUP), which includes the handling of caps in a circular economy and promoting anti-littering solutions. Article 6 of the Single-Use Plastics Directive drafted in 2018 establishes a new norm requiring closures to be connected/tethered to the bottle. That article was voted on by the European Parliament in March 2019, resulting in another major step change for the European plastic caps and closures industry. The tethered cap regulation will impact plastic beverage bottles under three liters, including composite containers (i.e. cartons). By 2024, all beverage closures will have to be tethered by law.

According to AMI’s report, there are a number of technical variables to consider with a tethered cap, including opening angle, torque, rotation of band, lock-in position and so forth, all of which may result in a different concept. So that the consumer’s drinking experience is not adversely affected, the tethered cap should allow for a wide opening and lock-in position, prevent rotation and be re-closable.

The new regulation is intended to reduce littering; however, noted the report, there are some unintended consequences. “It will likely stir demand for virgin polymers, thus compromising the industry’s committed efforts to lightweighting,” said AMI. Short-term, the new closure designs are likely to be heavier than those on the market today. Additionally the industry will need to accommodate significant costs required for regulatory compliance. “This creates a conceivable clash between environmental and economic pillars of sustainability and uncertainty over consumer acceptance of changes.”

One major problem with recycling and the resulting recyclate is contamination. Recyclate has to be clean in order to be accepted for recycling. The PRE notes the importance of avoiding the introduction of contaminants in the recycling streams to retain high safety standards for recycled materials. In Europe, the groundwork has been laid out, as high-quality sorting practices that could be implemented EU-wide already exist.

The challenge, noted by PRE, is to create a system where all the complementary steps—separate packaging waste collection, harmonized sorting standards and quality checks for bales—are optimized and equally enforced at the member state level. “It is thus essential to promote the separate collection of plastic packaging waste, and at the same time to create standards that will promote best practices in sorting and bale specifications for sorted plastic packaging waste,” said PRE. “With these efforts we can genuinely capture the value of plastic waste and transform it into new high-quality products, produced in accordance with the highest European safety standards.”

Recycling to obtain high-quality recyclate begins with the sorting process, and step one toward improved quality of recyclate is increased separate collection. Consumers can help with this if they are educated about the recycling process and what is important. Step two is standardized “best sorting” practices that should them lead to optimized bale quality specifications.

“High-quality sorting of plastic packaging waste will lead to increased productivity and improved cost efficiency of the recycling processes, resulting in the production of high-quality recyclates,” said PRE. “Such measures are essential if the industry is to move closer toward a circular economy.”

Image: Seventyfour/Adobe Stock

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