Recyclable material – not waste

After being used, plastics can be utilised again in many ways

Recycling saves valuable resources and cuts environmental impact

It still seems to be zeitgeisty for some people to make disparaging remarks about used plastics. This is reflected in the sometimes completely indiscriminate accusations made against plastic waste that politicians adopt as public opinion and then transform into nonsensical regulations such as the ‘plastic tax’ planned by the EU Commission – even though experts are arguing vehemently against it. Packaging, and plastic packaging in particular, is not waste but a valuable resource. Experts refer to the sorted and chopped up used plastic material as recyclate and it can be used to make new plastic products. 

The principle of recycling is to turn old into new. This conserves raw materials and energy and reduces environmental impact, because recyclate can be used to manufacture new products instead of having to first produce the plastics anew. This means that there is thus no reason –and no justification! – to ‘denigrate’ plastic items that have already been used once by referring to them as ‘waste’.

The fact is that manufacturers now advertise many products as being made of recycled plastics or as having a high recyclate content. Be it spectacle frames, electrical appliances, household goods or other items – the fact that reference is now being made to recycled plastics in marketing makes it clear that there is an ongoing change in the right direction taking place: a recyclable material that can be used repeatedly is being recognised and appreciated as such.

The material loop – it makes sense ecologically and economically

At a time when public opinion, politics and science are focusing increasingly on the finite nature of resources and when it is becoming more and more obvious that resources are finite, recycling plastics is a good example of how to do things better: instead of only using resources once, plastics become part of a material loop and are used over and over again, which makes sense ecologically and economically. This principle is one of the reasons why the eco-balance of plastic beverage packaging, for example, is better than that of the glass bottle that is preferred by some environmental campaigners. Institutions like the German Federal Environment Agency that analyse such matters critically have now also come to this conclusion.

How are recycled plastics used as raw materials? There are many ways to keep plastics in a material loop: for example, they can be broken down into their individual chemical components or the carbon in the plastic material can be used to generate energy and heat. 

At present, the predominant method is to recycle the plastics mechanically. This is called material recycling. It involves sorting the plastic waste according to the type of plastic, washing it, melting it down and processing it into the above-mentioned recyclates. Such recyclates are excellent starting materials for manufacturing new plastic products. They thus make the production of new plastics superfluous. Mechanical recycling preserves the chemical structure of the plastics. Such recyclates can replace new plastics on a one-to-one basis.

Using the energy stored in plastics

A special form of recycling the raw materials is particularly suitable for mixed and contaminated plastic fractions. In this process, the polymer chains of the plastic are split, for example by heating. The resulting materials can also be used to produce new plastics or used in blast furnaces instead of coke, coal or natural gas. In the case of energy recovery only, the energy contained in the plastics is used to produce electricity, steam or process heat. This process is particularly suitable for contaminated plastic fractions. It contributes significantly to saving fossil fuels and thus makes a valuable contribution to combating climate change, protecting the environment and conserving resources.

In view of the great importance it attaches to plastics as reusable materials, the industry has set itself the goal of recyclable or reusable packaging achieving a 90% market share by 2025. It is already 75% today. This makes it clear that the recycling of plastics is not about solving a problem, but clearly about using a valuable raw material. This means that unlike alternative materials, plastic packaging does not constitute waste after it has been used for the first time but is rather a resource that must be utilised.

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