Increasing recyclate content is right and important

Packaging made of recycled material really is sustainable

Exporting waste is detrimental to a functioning recyclate market

Turning old into new. That would be a simple way of defining recycling. It also applies to plastics: used plastic products are sorted, in other words separated according to type, washed, melted down and then processed into so-called recyclates. In this way, what would otherwise be waste becomes valuable secondary raw materials that can be used again to make new plastic products. The process offers enormous benefits: the recycled plastic can be used a second time and it is not necessary to produce new plastic to replace it. This saves raw materials and energy – that’s how sustainability really works.

There is thus no need for recycled plastic products that have already undergone a life cycle and are then reused to shy away from any comparison when it comes to their ecological ‘footprint’: for example, as far as their eco-balance is concerned, disposable plastic bottles made from recyclate clearly beat the returnable glass bottles wrongly feted by many sustainability apologists. This is because glass packaging is not only significantly heavier, but also has to undergo extensive cleaning before it can be reused.

This means that packaging with a high recyclate content is clearly more sustainable. To be able to use this benefit for their product marketing, beverage suppliers are increasingly using plastic bottles with different levels of recycled material content: some with 50 per cent recycled plastic, others that even contain 100 per cent recyclate. But although the market is leading the way, politics is still limping along behind. The legal requirements in this area are still very low, too low to be precise. In the EU, for example, PET bottles will only need to have a recyclate content of at least 25 per cent from 2025 onwards, and the minimum figure for all disposable plastic beverage bottles will increase to 30 per cent in 2030. 

Since packaging with a high recycled material content is demonstrably more sustainable, the bar should be set as high as possible because it makes sense. In other words: increasing the proportion of recycled material in a product is necessary and right! Accordingly, observers see the new Packaging Act and the amended EU Waste Framework Directive as a first political step in the right direction, which, however, urgently needs to be followed by others – for example in the form of stricter requirements and controls with the aim of building up a reliable market for recyclates and increasing the recovery rates for material obtained from used products.

Better waste sorting is the only way to obtain enough recyclate

However, to increase the proportion of recyclates in the broad mass of plastic packaging, it is necessary to ensure that waste is sorted appropriately. According to studies, more than 99 per cent of the 6.3 million tonnes of plastic waste generated annually in Germany is recycled – but only 47 per cent of it is reused. The recycling rates are even lower for plastic waste from private households: only 33 per cent. The reason for this is that in industrial applications, plastics are usually clean and sorted by type, whereas in households there is a far broader product mix. This makes recycling more difficult.

The consequence of this is that waste separation by the consumer must be improved significantly, and that investments in industrial waste sorting and processing must be increased substantially. This is the only way to manage and sort the required and desired waste volumes in the best possible way and to establish a functioning recyclates market in the long term. Appropriate political framework conditions are indispensable here. In addition, new technologies, such as digital watermarks on plastic packaging, which have the potential to significantly improve waste sorting, must be promoted.

Exporting waste is damaging the recyclates market

Experts are emphasising the need for a ban on exports of waste as another very significant prerequisite for ensuring an adequate supply of recyclate. For example, although exports of plastic waste from Germany have declined recently, the country is still the EU leader, exporting more than a million tonnes of plastic waste a year. For Andreas Schütte, CEO of the packaging manufacturer PACCOR, the stricter rules for the export of plastic waste that came into force in the EU on 1 January 2021 are also overdue. Without any ifs and buts, he brands sending plastic waste out of the EU as ‘the biggest mistake ever made’. Schütte emphasises that this is because plastics are recyclable materials and are therefore far too valuable not to be used as such. PACCOR’s CEO makes this unequivocally clear when he says, “Used plastic is not waste, but a valuable raw material and we have to make use of it.”

As he explains, “Good waste sorting and a ban on waste exports are both needed if we are to have really high-quality recyclate available in sufficient quantities at an economic price.”

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