Vecoplan AG (Bad Marienberg, Germany) produces machinery and plants for shredding, conveying and processing primary and secondary raw materials captured in recycling processes. The manager of its recycling division, Stefan Kaiser, recently shared his views on the recycling economy and how it can be improved. “The recycling economy is one of the greatest challenges of the future,” said Kaiser. “It will help to improve the overall image of the plastics industry, from the producer and processor to the recycler. We must learn to appreciate that we need to deal with plastics more sustainably.”
While Kaiser acknowledges that plastics recycling lags behind recovery of other materials such as glass, metal and paper, he cites the wide variety of plastic materials that go into the recycling stream. “We have a broad mix of plastics that are put into circulation,” he said. These are often materials which are not made from a monopolymer but from several plastics, such as multi-layer films.
“At the same time, different plastics are mixed in one product. The more compounds one creates, the more difficult it is to separate these from one another. Recycling is then correspondingly laborious and expensive. Therefore, it is important to think about the recycling capability right at the product design stage. One possibility, for example, would be to produce a film from only one plastic and, in return, make it somewhat thicker.”
While this might make the product more expensive, Kaiser notes that costs have to be considered “over the whole life cycle of a product. It then becomes clear that even if a company produces highly economically, it is only efficient if recycling is not too laborious. Those who market plastic products should think about how sustainably their products can be used,” said Kaiser.
While getting government involved through legislation and regulation processes has some benefits, Kaiser believes it is up to industry to “emphasize the advantages” of plastic and to “show where it is used and what benefits it brings.” It will also require education in recycling “to demonstrate what is possible with recycling and how recycled materials can be used.”
One of the challenges in recycling is the quality of the recycled materials, which has “improved considerably” in recent years, commented Kaiser. With the latest processing techniques, higher quality of recycled plastics is possible. However, Kaiser noted that he thinks the main problem lies in creating acceptance of these materials by the consumer. Recycled plastics may be the better option, but it is also necessary for recycled materials to comply with the necessary standards required for end-use products.
Injection molders have told Kaiser that the properties of the processed recycled material must be equal to that of virgin resin. “Many companies still believe that secondary plastics are difficult to handle and jeopardize reliable production,” said Kaiser, who acknowledged that recycled plastics are not the same as virgin resin. “For each product, the processor should ask whether new material is necessary or whether recycled material is sufficient. What is necessary to achieve acceptance by the consumer, by the processors and their customers?
“Only [acceptance of] these recycled plastics will drive manufacturers to produce higher quality products from recycled materials,” Kaiser added. “The quantities will then be sufficiently large to make it worthwhile—the greater the acceptance, the lower the price.”
Kaiser also explained how bio-materials might affect recycling. Biobased plastics are produced organically, for example, from corn starch. Bio-plastics can be divided into biobased and biologically degradable plastics. “I think their use is critical; in the case of biobased plastics, I can definitely see a possibility, particularly when fossil materials have been used up and sustainable raw materials increase in importance,” Kaiser commented.
"The end product has the same properties as a product made from refined oil, and requires a similarly long time to decompose,” said Kaiser. “In recycling, the material is treated in exactly the same way as any other plastic. On the other hand, degradable plastics only have the basic form and behave like a plastic. To process them so that they can be recycled is more difficult. But, in return, they can decompose—not as quickly as a banana, but still faster than a normal plastic bag, which needs approximately 450 years to do so.
“When composting bio-plastics, higher temperatures and moisture can accelerate the decomposition process. In spite of this, consumers should not be fooled into thinking that bio-plastics are the answer.”