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Home > News > Focus

The wheels of sustainability in plastics has started turning

victor     Admin
Source:Adsale Plastics Network Date :2024-04-23 Editor :​Professor Li Bin
Copyright: This article was originally written/edited by Adsale Plastics Network (AdsaleCPRJ.com), republishing and excerpting are not allowed without permission. For any copyright infringement, we will pursue legal liability in accordance with the law.

The society has mixed feelings about plastics. Especially in recent years, there has been more concern about the environmental pollution generated by plastics. In order to utilize the benefits of plastics while preventing them from polluting the environment, the plastics industry has explored many possibilities from upstream to downstream. The sustainability in plastics is no longer just an issue for the industry itself, but has also attracted the attention of the society as a whole.


The sustainability of plastics is driving tremendous innovation in the industry from upstream to downstream, particularly in the areas related to carbon emissions reduction for tackling climate change, as well as environmental, social and governance (ESG) which relates to responsible investment. The entire plastics industry chain should be redefined around sustainability and recycling.


Increased adoption of recycled plastics in application industries


Almost all brands have a job position responsible for sustainable development, with plastics as the key point of focus. Plastics are required to be recycled after use to avoid incineration or landfill, which creates additional environmental burdens.


Different regional and national associations around the world, including CEFLEX (Circular Economy for Flexible Package) in Europe, APR (Association of Plastic Recyclers) in the US, and GRPG (Green Recycled Plastics Supply Chain Joint Working Group) in China, have developed corresponding regulations and standards for plastics recycling.


One example is that many beverage brands already announced specific action goals, such as Coca-Cola’s commitment to use 100% recyclable packaging globally by 2025 and more than 50% recycled materials in product packaging globally by 2030.


While still under discussion in China, food-contact recycled plastics have become a global trend, with many countries having applications developed for food-grade recycled materials. It is expected to generate a market of millions of tons of food-grade recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). The “bottle-to-bottle” market will compete directly with existing markets such as “bottle-to-fiber” for upstream bottle sources, which will drive up the price of used beverage bottles until supply and demand reach an equilibrium.


The use of recycled plastics has been the norm in the home appliance industry, and many home appliance brands, including Gree and Haier, have been deeply involved in the recycling of plastics. With the suspension of the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) disposal fund in January 2024, plastics recycling in the Chinese home appliance industry is entering into a new chapter. In the absence of “subsidies”, how to maximize the recycling value of plastics from used appliance will further advance the development of the industry.


For the automotive industry, the European Commission proposed a new regulation to ensure that at least 25% of plastics used to build a vehicle comes from recycling, of which 25% is to come from recycled end-of-life vehicles (ELVs). This regulation extends the use of recycled plastics in vehicles directly from the exteriors to the interiors. 


The automotive industry has already begun to respond positively by developing relevant technologies and formulations to meet the requirements of the regulation. More importantly, automakers are reconsidering the structure and material design of automotive components to make them easier to recycle from ELVs.


bmw_480.jpg

The BMW Group is working with the recycling industry, processing suppliers and research institutes on the circular economy in automotive manufacturing.


The packaging industry faces a unique situation. Rigid packaging is relatively simple to design for easy-to-recycle, and its recycling has become increasingly sophisticated; for flexible packaging, the development of alternatives to aluminum foil, aluminizing and other non-recyclable structures is slow, mainly due to the need for barrier properties; some brand owners are also beginning to consider adopting bio-based or degradable plastics to reduce environmental impact. 


With the development of ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer (EVOH) co-extrusion, silicon oxide (SiOx) evaporation, and other recyclable packaging structures, it will be possible to achieve recyclable design for flexible packaging structures with a manageable cost at a later stage.


Processing and material suppliers more responsive to market demands 


From the perspective of processing technology, almost all mainstream equipment manufacturers, including KraussMaffei and ENGEL in the injection molding sector, W&H in blown film blowing sector, and some Chinese equipment suppliers, have introduced new equipment suitable for recycled plastics processing. With brand owners’ increasing demands for recyclability of plastics and the use of recycled plastics in plastic products, processing suppliers have started to upgrade their equipment to meet the market demands.


Nevertheless, the bigger changes come from the raw material supply chain. Recycled plastics have never been taken as seriously by the industry as they are today, and almost all plastic raw material producers, including global petrochemical giants, are participating in the recycled plastics market. Some examples in China are LyondellBasell and Genox Recycling Tech to build a plastics recycling plant in Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province, and INEOS and GER to collaborate on production of high-quality recycled acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymer (ABS). In addition, Dow aims to transform waste and alternative feedstock to deliver three million metric tons of circular and renewable solutions per year by 2030. 


Recycled plastics_480.jpg

Recycled plastics is currently receiving unprecedented attention.


Recycled plastics will become standard products for plastic raw material producers, which means that in the near future, most petrochemical companies will offer recycled plastics alongside virgin plastics in the market.


At present, recycled plastics are mainly produced through the processes of collection, granulating, washing, and pelletizing. Previously, the consumption of recycled plastics was mainly for injection molding, where the process does not require high quality of recycled plastics; however, with the development of blown film, cast film and fiber applications, new requirements have been put forward for impurities, odor, and processing properties in recycled plastics. This forces the recycling process to improve the quality. Apart from removing impurities, the process has to effectively remove odor, and the materials should be properly modified to meet the requirements of the post-processing processes.


While mechanical recycling remains the most widely employed recycling process, chemical recycling is attracting a lot of attention from the plastics industry. This is mainly due to the fact that chemical recycling yields products with better performance and, in some cases, lowers carbon emissions (energy consumption) than mechanical recycling, while ensuring consistent product quality. For example, chemical recycling for PET is more competitive in terms of unit cost and has lower carbon emissions. 


However, operation of chemical recycling is the expertise of the chemical industry, which imposes barriers to the traditional recycled plastics companies. Therefore, the collaboration and integration between different industries will be a general trend, and the focus of the integration will be the sources of recycled plastics and cost control.


Mechanical Recycling_OMVBlog_480.jpg

Mechanical recycling is still the dominant recycling process. (Source: OMV)


Standardization and digitalization of recycling system


The development of the recycled plastics sector has to be supported by standardized sources of plastic waste, which will accelerate the standardization and digitalization of the recycling system. The old recycling system, which was fragmented and unregulated, could no longer support the needs of the sector.


Pilot projects such as the two-network integration project of LOVERE and the low-value recyclables sorting center developed by Luhai Pro-environment in China are all attempts in this direction, hoping the integration and upgrading initiatives will make the recycling system an efficient, low-cost and traceable source of recycled plastics, thus further supporting the development of the supply chain.


The annual global consumption of plastics is about 400 million tons, of which 32.5 million tons are recycled plastics, accounting for only about 8%. With the increasing popularity of new energy vehicles and the peaking of gasoline and diesel consumption, there will be pressure on obtaining monomers from refineries to make virgin plastics, which will create an opportunity for a further increase in the use of recycled plastics. It is now the best time to embrace the opportunity for increasing recycling plastics or turning them into monomers for reuse.


The consumers and markets have already voted in favor of the sustainable development of plastics, and the supply chain is actively promoting recycled plastics. As a green supply chain initiative, GRPG’s “Double E” certification has been recognized by brands such as Procter & Gamble, Mengniu, Liby, Coca-Cola, and Shanghai Jahwa, which aims to introduce easy-to-recycle plastic packaging products to the market.


Last but not least, the adoption of recycled plastics is starting to become an industry consensus from upstream to downstream. As the wheels of sustainability in plastics have started turning, we hope to turn it faster with our efforts to better use recycled plastics and create more value.

There is no such thing as waste, only resources in the wrong place.


By Professor Li Bin, Center of Advanced Low Dimension Material, Donghua University


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Sustainability
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