Technological watch

Can we achieve a circular economy for plastics once and for all'

Can you share some of your company's most significant achievements in promoting a greener future for plastics' Alexandra Tomczyk, analyst, Plastic Recycling at ICIS:ICIS has recently launched two new reports, Mixed Plastic Waste & Pyrolysis Oil Europe and Recycled Polypropylene Asia, both bringing much anticipated new insights into these markets. Chemical (advanced) recycling especially continues to be a hot topic, but one shrouded in legislative and economic feasibility uncertainty. To combat this lack of clarity, we have recently launched a Recycled Plastics Focus page, accessible to all our clients, and shining a global spotlight on current market dynamics and legislation. These are only some of the latest features in our ongoing mission to inform and educate the chemical industry on recycled plastics. And as an increasing number of major stakeholders explore and venture into recycling, now more than ever expert, accessible information is key to success.

Gina Rudkin, head of sustainability, Axil Integrated Services:We’re dedicated to finding innovative solutions to environmental challenges, starting with transparent, honest audits.

A recent audit at a major UK automotive site revealed substantial recyclable content in their general waste. We quickly proposed and implemented on-site technology, the Mini-Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), redirecting these valuable resources from incineration to sustainable recycling.

Taking charge of waste isn't just about managing it; it involves identifying efficiencies and opportunities for cost savings and environmental impact reduction. Partnering with clients, Axil advocate better upstream practices like reducing single-use plastics and enhancing segregation. Through proper sorting and education, we've seen the potential for clients to ramp up recycling efforts by over 60%, potentially cutting costs by up to 70%.

Rigorous audits and data analysis showcase the sustainability and commercial benefits of improved waste segregation.

The results speak volumes: a drastic increase in recycling potential and a significant reduction in general waste expenditure. By identifying and segregating over 20 waste streams, previously lumped together, we've unlocked new recycling opportunities while ensuring compliance control, particularly in hazardous waste management.

Beyond waste management, we're driving broader environmental improvements, contributing to CO2 reduction and promoting a circular economy. These efforts translate into tangible outcomes like increased rebates, reduced incineration costs, and lower carbon emissions.

David Harris, chairman at Chase Plastics:Chase Plastics has been recycling plastics in the UK for 60+ years during which time it has kept thousands of tonnes of usable material in the supply chain. The recycler continually invests in the latest technologies to increase its capabilities in the most sustainable manner.  Such investment has enabled Chase Plastics to provide recycled content solutions that help manufacturers meet their sustainability challenges. As the environmental debate heightened, Chase Plastics launched the RECOTHENE rPE range to support customers redesigning high performance polythene packaging. Compatible with all extrusion machinery RECOTHENE is engineered to ensure the highest levels of processability and quality. 

Recently, Chase Plastics partnered with ancillary equipment manufacturer Summit Systems and Ocean Integrity, a global enterprise dedicated to recovering ocean plastics, to recycle ocean-recovered Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) for onward use in the manufacturing supply chain where it usefully contributes to the Circular Economy.

Chase Plastics believes that ongoing technical support is an essential element of their business.  This has been particularly apparent since the inception of the UK Plastic Packaging Tax.  To avoid the tax, a product must incorporate at least 30% recycled content. Modifying a product takes time.  As with virgin materials, parameters such as material composition, tensile strength, density and melt flow rate all have to be considered during reformulation. With decades of experience in recycling and extrusion the team at Chase Plastics have been able to support customers through the adaption of their processes and formulations.

Emily Skinner, head of market engagement, Smile Plastics:At Smile Plastics, we are always striving toward continuous improvement across our entire operation. Starting with sourcing raw waste as locally as possible to our factory in Swansea, Wales, we have developed a proprietary process that utilises low heat and low energy to create beautiful decorative recycled plastic panels.

Our verified EPDs for rHIPS and rPET demonstrate not only our commitment to the environment in our manufacturing process, but also what sets us apart from other material manufacturers from the beginning to the end of our materials’ lives. Any “waste” plastics or substandard materials generated during manufacture and cutting are returned to the beginning of the process, modelling zero-waste production – as the polymers are not degraded during this process, along with our buy-back scheme, this allows us to keep recycling our plastic panels again and again.

What are the biggest challenges we still face in achieving this plastic circularity goal, and what specific solutions do you see as key drivers in creating a closed-loop system'Alexandra Tomczyk, analyst, Plastic Recycling at ICIS:Over the past decade the public sentiment toward plastic and the industry understanding of plastic sustainability have changed drastically. The EU is on the brink of adopting comprehensive regulations on packaging (PPWR), and 2025 will be a seminal year for single-use plastics. All the while municipal governments are left to fend for themselves when it comes to waste management. High-quality feedstock obtained through sophisticated collection and sorting is the biggest challenge Europe faces – especially for contact-sensitive polyolefin applications. Infrastructure development and education must go hand in hand to overcome this challenge. Legislators, local governments, civil society, businesses – all need a better understanding of how plastics enable sustainability, and how they can become circular if all stakeholders move in unison in the same direction.

We also urgently need more transparency of global waste movements, especially in the textiles and automotive recycling sectors. Thousands of tonnes of potential waste polymer feedstock leaves Europe each year, with no legal recourse to return to Europe for processing. Traceability, of waste and recycled polymer movements alike, will become a key tool in Europe’s sustainability reporting.

Gina Rudkin, head of sustainability, Axil Integrated Services:One major challenge we face is the complexity of materials in product design, especially those with multiple bonded materials used in lightweight alternatives to cans and bottles. Unfortunately, there's often a gap between product launches and technology capable of properly separating components for recycling, leading to disposal in landfills or incinerators, hindering closed-loop system efforts.

Our focus is collaborating with clients on upstream practices, like ensuring all delivered goods have 100% recyclable or returnable packaging and phasing out problematic materials like polystyrene. We advocate designing products with end-of-life considerations from the outset. Mapping out the fate of a product at the design phase, rather than leaving it to consumers to decide, we can proactively plan for the reuse, recycling and repurposing of products.

Another obstacle is the quality required for recycled plastics to meet food-grade standards. Not all recycled plastics meet these stringent criteria, leading to downgrading in subsequent uses. Demand for food grade plastics is increasing, and with the introduction of the plastic packaging tax, stimulating more use of recycled plastic content in manufacturing, this trend will continue. We recognise the need for innovative solutions to overcome this challenge, such as advancements in recycling technologies and processes that can produce high-quality recycled plastics suitable for food-grade applications.

Achieving plastic circularity requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the complexities of product design, recycling processes, and material quality standards.

David Harris, chairman at Chase Plastics:Plastic recycling is a complex area in which several parties must work together to enable true circularity. Politicians need to start listening to those who are investing in the UK’s recycling infrastructure. Decisions are often based on dogma not facts and we end up with a perverse form of reverse-protectionism, policies which disadvantage UK companies to the benefit of overseas competitors. Consequently, when Government sets out to increase recycling they invariably damage the recycling industry.

For many years, investment in the UK’s plastics recycling capacity has lagged behind the volumes generated so input from those working in the sector is required to develop a national recycling infrastructure that can meet demand.

Emily Skinner, head of market engagement, Smile Plastics:Some of the biggest challenges we still face in achieving true plastic circularity are lack of infrastructure and a global dependence on single-use plastics, perpetuated by governments, industries and consumers alike. We must, as a society, make a rapid change towards designing for circularity and with longevity in mind; if we consider the beginning, middle and end of everything we use or consume, and have the proper processes in place to be able to repurpose or recycle everything we use, then plastics can become a valuable and vital resource once again rather than one of the planet’s largest concerns.

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Publication date: 22/04/2024

European Plastic Product Manufacturer

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31