Mixed plastics creates recycling challenge in Europe

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BRUSSELS — Europe is being swamped by a tide of low value plastic waste, much of which is currently going to landfill – a situation that is of growing concern to the EU. Now, a European Commission Green Paper on plastic waste has been given a cautious welcome by the European plastics industry bodies Plastics Recyclers Europe, European Plastic Converters (EuPC) and PlasticsEurope, which would like to eliminate all plastic waste going to landfill.
The Green Paper will form part of a wider review of the EU's waste legislation that will be completed in 2014. This review will look at the existing targets for waste recovery and landfill as well as an ex-post evaluation of the five directives covering various waste streams.
The EU is already partnering with industry in plastic waste initiatives such as the Plastic Recyclate Impression Moulding Engineering (Prime) project, which aims to divert low-value mixed plastic waste from landfill by converting it into products. Prime, which is funded by the EU's Seventh Framework, is examining the possibility of using the mixed plastic raw material in flood barriers, construction and transport products.
Inevitably, systems will be needed to handle this waste and last year the Commission called for tenders for a pilot project to develop new recycling channels and technological solutions for the sorting and material recycling of mixed plastics waste. The aim of the project – in which the contractor will be asked to develop a semi-industrial scale model pilot installation – will be to optimize waste collection and set up mixed plastics waste recycling facilities.
"Whilst the recycling of 'pure' plastic waste streams is rather well developed, there are still substantial problems to overcome as far as the recycling of mixed plastics is concerned, which are reflected in low recycling rates," said the Commission.
Europe's plastics industry bodies suggest that the Green Paper is at least a "starting point" towards dealing with the 10 million metric tonn of post-consumer plastic waste that is buried in landfill every year. The European Association of Plastics Recycling and Recovery Organisations (EPRO) estimates that of Europe's (EU27+2) total amount of generated plastic waste, just 33.6 percent is recycled, with a further 33.2 percent going for energy recovery and the remainder going to landfill. Packaging is responsible for 62 percent of all Europe's plastic waste but recovery rates at 66.8 percent are better than for other plastic applications.
However, nine countries still landfill more than 50 percent of their plastic packaging waste. There are also big differences within Europe with regards to the systems used to sort plastic waste packaging for collection. Some countries like Austria and the UK collect all plastic packaging while others concentrate on just rigid plastic packaging. Germany, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have a deposit system for beverage bottles in addition to the general household collection scheme for plastic packaging, while Belgium, France and Switzerland focus on PET bottles.

Although the Commission states that its initiatives will not jeopardize the current single material recycling streams for PET bottles, PE films or PVC building materials some in the PET recycling industry fear that in its zeal to tackle the rising problem of low value mixed plastic waste the EU could indeed inadvertently undermine existing high value waste streams.
In theory there should be no link between the PET waste stream and the mixed waste stream of 'plastic pots, tubs and trays' (PTT). Thomas Probst, at Germany's Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Management (BVSE), told European Plastics News: "In most European countries the collection of PET bottles takes place separated from other plastic wastes."
But in European countries with less well developed PET collection systems there could be a dilution of PET. Antonino Furfari, advocacy manager for Plastics Recyclers Europe (EuPR), said: "In Belgium there is a highly developed system and no link between the PET and HDPE waste streams, but in other countries where it is less well defined there are possible dangers to PET recycling."
The UK's Waste & Resources Action Programme's latest technical guide warns that the rising amounts of mixed plastic packaging are now diluting the presence of PET and HDPE bottles, "which is making it difficult for plant operators to extract these polymer types to a high enough standard". The warning echoes the one contained in an earlier position statement from the British Plastics Federation Recycling Group, which outlined concerns from its members about the wider contamination that now includes "significant quantities of PVC and PS".
Stuart Foster, CEO of Recoup, the UK representative within EPRO, said that mixing plastic packaging in the UK waste stream minimizes the recycling opportunity. "There have been some UK facility developments for PTT but issues still remain around the consistency and quality of PTT material being supplied to the marketplace. Other EU countries such as Germany tend to focus on reprocessing the polyolefins, sending the remaining polymers from the PTT fraction to alternative energy from waste," he said.
Aside from the technical difficulties, the problem of dealing with mixed plastic waste stems from the strict rules in place that govern re-use. For example, non-food packaging cannot be recycled to package food products, which places additional burdens on facilities when it comes to sorting plastics for recycling.
The most likely way that the EU can achieve its waste target, Foster argues, is to provide support where it is most needed, "for each plastic format". There also needs to be greater investment in chemical recycling techniques such as plastic to fuel applications. However, as Foster points out, "these options do not currently count towards recycling targets."