Leading executives involved in European plastics recycling convened in Portugal in mid-June to address the current state of affairs and to look into the future of the industry.
The discussions among nearly 200 recycling professionals occurred at the 20th anniversary meeting of Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE), which took place June 16-17 in Cascais, Portugal.
One takeaway from the two-day event was that industry members are carefully watching the development of a comprehensive circular economy package from the European Commission.
Helmut Maurer, representing the European Commission’s directorate general for the environment, provided an overview of the circular economy approach. He said the method is warranted because “too many people are consuming unsustainable stuff in too short a time in ever-increasing quantities.”
To address this issue in terms of plastics, he urged using plastics only for non-disposable goods. He also said these plastics should be non-toxic, recyclable and responsibly designed.
The European Commission’s regulatory package currently under consideration contains several key requirements affecting plastics recycling, such as the use of separate collection and pay-as-you-throw waste management systems. The policy initiative also includes an increase in recycling targets.
The current proposal would more than double the present pan-European plastics recycling target to 55 percent by 2025, and a potential amendment being considered would move this even higher, to 60 percent. The new legislation is expected to be approved by late this year or early in 2017.
Quality issues prevail
Another talking point in Cascais centered around quality concerns arising from higher recovery targets.
Members of the PRE working group on mixed plastics pointed out that the push to achieve higher recovery requirements has led to more interest in recovering new types of plastic products, such as thermoformed packaging, tubs and cups. In addition, many PET and PE reclaimers are striving to recover more resins from their processing residue.
But this move toward more and more mixed-plastics recovery comes with a problem: Reclaimers say they are seeing rising bale contamination. “The drive for higher targets is driving down the quality,” said one leading U.K mixed-plastics reclaimer.
In addition, an informal poll of PRE’s LDPE working group showed nearly all members say they continue to battle the effects of the poor quality of input volumes.
Various approaches to handling this quality problem are being offered. For example, the Portuguese packaging recovery system penalizes materials recovery facilities that generate high levels of bale contamination.
Several members of PRE’s mixed plastics subgroup also discussed the need for improved technology to process bales containing mixed resins. In addition, the push for quality improvements is reflected in discussions underway, as noted above, by the European Commission, which is considering a requirement for collection and sorting firms to be certified.