Despite the disruption to the waste management market caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, flexible film recycling capacity in Europe increased by almost 10 percent in 2020, according to the latest figures from Plastics Recyclers Europe.
Last year around 30 new recycling plants were added, increasing the total number of these plants by 2018 with a combined recycling capacity of 2.7 million tons for polyethylene films.
Linear low density PE / PE is the second largest fraction of plastics in the European Union market. The annual requirement is more than 9 million tons and thus offers considerable scope for setting up recycling systems.
Already 17 percent of the recycled flexible polyethylene is processed in film-to-film applications, with non-food packaging and construction being the main consumers. Forecasts show that PE film products could contain up to 38 percent of the recycled content by 2030.
“Once considered difficult to recycle, the flexible recycling of polyethylene household waste is now a successful business model. Rapid technological developments in collection, sorting and recycling have made it possible to recycle film back into film, “said Ton Emans, President of Plastics Recyclers Europe and Chairman of the PRE LDPE Working Group.
“Closed-loop recycling is the future of circular flexible plastic and makes Europe a pioneer in mechanical film recycling. This is a strong signal not only for investors but also for brand owners, retailers, policymakers and citizens, ”said Emans. “That does not mean that there are no challenges. The main obstacles to opening up new high-end applications are multilayer and multi-material products that do not adhere to the principles of Design for Recycling.”
Flexible plastics recycling is expected to continue to show robust growth due to a number of positive trends. The expanded collection programs currently under way across the EU will increase the amount of flexible plastic film that households will collect. Better sorting technologies along with the introduction of extended producer responsibility systems will lead to more monomaterial flows and a gradually decreasing mixed polyolefin content. In addition, the demand for high quality recycled flexible PE will increase as actors in the flexible plastics value chain want to meet their commitments to improve the recyclability of plastics and to integrate recycled plastics into their products.
In order to pursue these positive trends, however, the players in the industry have to rely on long-term solutions and not on quick fixes. Against this background, PRE sees the Quality Recycling Process developed by Ceflex as a step in the wrong direction.
PRE maintains the best film recycling endeavors and focuses on returning materials to the film sector rather than reprocessing them.
“Processes that provide only 20 percent of the recycled film for film applications and 80 percent for injection molding are a step backwards for our industry because they are not aligned with the principles of the circular economy,” said Emans. “It will never be a profitable business case,” he added.
If the industry is to really and permanently convert the flexible plastic waste management towards recycling, the focus must be on the further optimization and further development of high-performance current processes and solutions in order to produce recycled material of the highest quality and to promote the inclusion of recyclates in film applications.