Despite the disruptions in the waste management market caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, recycling capacity for flexible film in Europe increased by almost 10 percent in 2020, according to the latest figures released by Plastics Recyclers Europe.
Some 30 new recycling facilities were added last year, bringing the total number of such facilities to 2018, with a combined polyethylene film recycling capacity of 2.7 million metric tons.
Linear low density PE/low density PE is the second largest plastic fraction in the European Union market. Annual demand is more than 9 million tonnes, offering significant scope for the establishment of recycling systems.
Already, 17 percent of recycled flexible polyethylene is processed in film-to-film applications, with non-food packaging and building and construction as the main users. Forecasts show that PE film products could incorporate overall as much as 38 percent of recycled content by 2030.
“Once deemed difficult to recycle, flexible household polyethylene waste recycling is a successful business case model of today. Fast-paced technological developments in collection, sorting and recycling, made it possible to recycle film back to film," said Ton Emans, President of Plastics Recyclers Europe and PRE LDPE-Working Group Chairman.
"Closed-loop recycling is the future of circular flexible plastic, placing Europe as a front runner of mechanical film recycling. This is a strong signal not only for investors but also brand owners, retailers, policy-makers and citizens,” Emans said. “This does not mean that there are no challenges. The main obstacles in targeting new high-end applications are multi-layer and multi-material products, which are not in line with the Design for Recycling principles."
Flexible plastic recycling is expected to continue to show robust growth due to a number of positive trends. The extended collection programs currently being implemented across the EU will boost the amount of flexible plastic film collected from households. Better sorting technologies, together with the introduction of extended producer responsibility systems will lead to more mono-material streams and a gradually decreasing mixed polyolefin fraction. In addition, demand for high-quality recycled flexible PE will climb as the players in the flexible plastic value chain seek to honour their commitments to improve the recyclability of plastics and to incorporate recycled plastics in their products.
To pursue these positive trends, nevertheless, the industry players must look towards long-term solutions and not quick fixes. In that light, PRE views the Quality Recycling Process developed by Ceflex as a step in the wrong direction.
PRE maintains the best recycling efforts for film focuses on returning materials to the film sector rather than sending it to other processing.
“Processes which propose only 20 percent of the recycled film back to film applications and 80 percent to injection molding are a step backwards for our industry as 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 transform flexible plastic waste management genuinely and durably towards circularity, the focus must be on further optimising and advancing well-performing current processes and solutions to produce the highest quality of recycled material, driving the uptake of recyclates in film applications.