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Polymers

Europe hardens stance on plastic recycling

France targets 100% recycling by 2025, but suitable technology may not be available

by Alex Scott
July 17, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 29

09729-buscon1-package.jpg
Credit: Zott
BASF and Borealis are part of a consortium developing multi-layered food packaging material from 100% recycled plastic.

The French government has proposed what it says is a “world first” plan to radically transform plastic production and consumption in France with a policy of recycling 100% of plastic waste by 2025. The proposal, which has yet to be approved by the French parliament, would make industries producing many plastic goods responsible for recycling them.

The French plan is a marked step up from legislation already agreed on by the European Commission, which among other things, stipulates that by May 2021, all EU member states must ban certain single-use plastic products and ensure that plastic bottles are made of at least 30% recycled material.

The UK and Germany also seek to implement their own ambitious policies for plastic recycling that go beyond the minimum requirements of the European Commission.

France’s ministry for environment acknowledges that the country has one of the lowest plastic recycling rates in Europe. France recycled 26% of plastic packaging in 2016, compared with 45% in UK and 48% in Germany, according to European Commission data.

It could be 5 to 10 years before fully circular technologies are commercially viable.
Robert Gilfillan, packaging expert, Wood Mackenzie

Chemical companies across Europe are already working on new technologies in response to Europe’s incoming recycling legislation. For example, BASF, Borealis, packaging firm Südpack, and food producer Zott recently announced that they have developed a prototype multilayered food packaging made with 100% recycled nylon and polyethylene. BASF says the used packaging can be converted into pyrolysis oil and turned into new polymer.

Although a plethora of plastic recycling projects are underway, these innovations might not be ready in time to meet the higher levels of recycling that Europe’s legislators are drawing up. “It could be 5 to 10 years before fully circular technologies are commercially viable,” says Rob Gilfillan, a packaging expert with consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

“Financing the shift from virgin resin production to recycled is an additional challenge. The cost burden on plastics producers could be significant,” Gilfillan says. “There is also considerable investment required in plastic waste collection infrastructure.”

Just doing away with plastic packaging isn’t necessarily a sustainable option either, Gilfillan adds, as it would raise levels of food waste and lead to the need for more food production and related inputs such as pesticides and transportation.

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