Recycling is best!

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But downcycling also conserves resources

Innovative recycling technologies need better promotion

Much of what is referred to today as ‘recycling’ is actually ‘downcycling’. One speaks of downcycling when recycling results in a product or raw material of lower quality than was originally the case. At first glance, this appears to be a bad thing, but downcycling also has an ecological significance that should not be neglected: it also helps to conserve resources and thus protects the environment. Downcycling may be second best, but it is far from being bad. It would be far better, though, if innovations such as a digital watermark on plastic packaging could be used to improve the quality of the recycled material. The campaigning for this by packaging manufacturer PACCOR is exemplary.

Growing mountains of waste are a problem for our modern throwaway society. They are being fuelled in no small part by the message, which is still being conveyed in many advertisements, that consumers should always be buying the latest version of a product, even if the existing one is still in perfect working order. Such consumer behaviour also means that there is no interest in continuing to use an ‘old’ appliance or, if necessary, having it repaired. Instead, many products end up in the rubbish, even though they don't need to be there –- and thus increase the amount of waste.

Achieving a circular economy through innovation

Packaging companies like the industry’s heavyweight player PACCOR are countering this with increased efforts for more and more effective recycling. A much-cited example is the company's major involvement in the HolyGrail 2.0 lighthouse project: it involves the development of a digital watermark on packaging that is intended to help sort waste better and thus recycle more plastic. The watermark, which resembles a QR code, contains information about the composition of the packaging material, and this allows the sorting plants of recycling companies to separate waste into individual fractions in a more targeted manner. This creates the conditions for improving the quality of the recyclate obtained. And the higher the quality of the recyclate, the greater is its suitability for use in high-quality downstream products. The quality of recycled material is thus an essential component of a closed material loop – which is what environmentalists and the industry concerned are striving for in equal measure.

This is also why experts are calling for greater promotion of technologies that create the necessary conditions for a functioning circular economy. Or for more support to be given to further commercialisation of the barcode for plastic packaging developed by PACCOR in cooperation with the technology group Digimarc. It boosts the recyclability of plastic packaging products by acting as a kind of digital recycling ‘pass’. Innovations such as these make it easier to scan and clearly identify the packaging waste that has been collected. They create the basis for new value streams for recycled plastics.

Create the framework conditions for using new technologies 

“There is still a lot of untapped innovation potential similar to these projects that could increase recycling quality,” says PACCOR’s CEO Andreas Schütte. He is therefore constantly calling for the framework conditions for using such new technologies to be finally created or significantly improved. This is also important in view of the growing demand for raw materials in the packaging industry. At the same time, the demand for high-quality recyclates has risen and continues to rise because the manufacturers of (plastic) packaging want to use more and more recycled raw materials in their products. According to a study by the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films (IK) and the packaging market research institute Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (GVM), the use of recycled plastic in packaging could be increased from 475 000 tonnes to around 960 000 tonnes a year.

But until that actually happens, experts consider that even the second-best recycling option, downcycling, is indispensable for environmental reasons. Even such recycling, which by definition is inferior, contributes significantly to the reuse of raw materials and the conservation of resources. Downcycling makes the manufacture of products from virgin raw materials superfluous. And the process prevents worn-out plastic products from ending up unused in the waste and adding to the mountains of rubbish. From an environmental point of view, even the second-best recycling option is better than not recycling at all.

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