BRUSSELS, BELGIUM — European plastics recyclers are facing a regional shortage of quality PET post-consumer waste, resulting from sizable exports of the material to China. The loss of recycled material, estimated at as much as 132.3 million pounds this year, is likely to worsen the effects of an expected shortfall in the region's overall PET resin supply and threatens the future of the recycling industry, European recycling leaders claim.
Several of Europe's biggest plastics recyclers have been hit hard by the shortfall. Many others are not prepared to invest in new capacity until they are sure enough quality plastics waste will be available in future, according to Bernard Merkx, president of the European Plastics Recyclers.
"The mechanical recycling industry is suffering considerably, mainly from the lack of sufficient quantities of homogeneous streams as input material. The material is collected but, instead of sorting, the bulk of the volume is pressed in bales and exported to the Far East.
"With a high demand for the input material, the remaining quantities available are very expensive, as there is an imbalance in offer [supply] and demand," Merkx told processors and resin suppliers at a May 18 recycling workshop in Brussels. The workshop was organized by the Brussels-based European Plastics Converters as part of Plastics Forum 2000.
Speaking later, Merkx said recyclers are handling about 10 percent of all plastics waste recovered in Europe. Today, an equivalent amount of plastics waste, much of it PET, is being consumed by exports, chiefly to China.
"We could increase the amount we are recycling relatively easily by, say 25 percent, if that material stayed in Europe," he said.
Instead of investing in new capacity, recyclers have idle lines and in some cases, businesses have been brought to their knees, he added.
Merkx, general manager of GT Recycling BV of Hardenberg, Netherlands, blamed the export drain of plastics waste for the "serious problems" being faced by some of Europe's, and the world's, top recycling firms.
He said the biggest of these, Arena Recycling NV of Beek, Netherlands, has severe financial difficulties.
"They are facing serious problems. They are making heavy losses because they cannot get enough recycling material," Merkx said.
Meanwhile, the second-ranked European plastics recycler, Polyrecycling AG of Weinfelden, Switzerland, has been forced to split up its operations and sell off its PET recycling business, said the EuPR president. The remainder of the firm is now known as PR Recycling AG.
"If the ... No. 1 and No. 2 [recyclers] cannot survive, then it is very serious," Merkx said.
In other European countries, too, recyclers are being hit hard. Merkx referred to the shutdown of plastics recycling firms in the United Kingdom, and severe problems being faced by the industry in Germany and Italy, where large quantities of PET waste collected is sold abroad.
"The mechanical recycling industry is not going to invest until these things are resolved. Because this industry has already invested many millions of dollars or deutsche marks since the early 1990s, there's a lot of disappointment because the market that was promised has never come," Merkx said.
The high price of what material is available, the inefficiency of the sorting process and the poor margins that can be expected are adding to European recyclers' state of crisis, he said.
Unless the problem of exported material is resolved by year's end and other players in the recycling chain play their part in the process, recycling in Europe will not progress, Merkx warned.
"If Europe wants to have a healthy, sustainable recycling industry, everybody has to play his part. If they do not do that, then they will have to live with the fact that there will be little recycling left," he said.
Under proposals for a revised version of the European Union's Packaging and Packaging Waste directive due to take effect in 2001, Europe's recyclers are backing a minimum quota target of 20 percent of plastic waste over five years.
Merkx said that achieving this target is "an enormous task," particularly in view of the current state of European recycling.
Another speaker at the workshop, Mathieu Haels, chief executive of Luxembourg-based PET preform molder LuxPET GmbH & Co. KG. of Sandweiler, said the PET market is growing at an average of 15 percent per year. From 3.75 billion pounds this year, European market demand is projected to grow to about 5 billion pounds by 2002, he said.
By that date, virgin PET capacity would be running at just 4.2 billion pounds, contributing to an increased shortfall. With PET collection and recycling still rising rapidly in the region, he suggested, the use of recyclate in PET "bottle-to-bottle" production could make up much of the gap.
Haels said there are import duties in Europe imposed on virgin material from Asia. So, he suggested, in view of a drain on quality raw material, one way to promote bottle-to-bottle recycling could be to place an export duty on PET flake and recycled PET.