Resource Use

European film recycling capacity rises almost 10 per cent in 2020

The European plastic recycling industry has observed almost a 10 per cent rise in the installed capacity for flexible plastic film over the past year.

This growth has occurred in spite of frequent disruptions within the waste management market caused by the pandemic, with the estimated capacity for polyethylene (PE) film recycling across Europe now amounting to 2.7 metric tonnes. 30 new facilities dedicated to recycling film have opened across the continent in 2020, bringing the total number of units to 218.

Flexible plastic filmLinear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) and low density polyethylene (LDPE) represents the second-largest plastic fraction within the EU market – a demand equivalent to over nine million tonnes – showing ‘major recycling potential’ as a result, according to Plastics Europe. The organisation states that forecasts predict PE film products could, overall, incorporate at least 38 per cent of recycled content by 2030. At present, 17 per cent of recycled flexible plastic film is already being reused in film-to-film applications, with its largest markets being non-food packaging and building and construction.

This figure looks set to grow, according to Plastics Europe, with extended film collection schemes being increasingly implemented across EU Member States, in order for recycling targets to be met. Improved sorting technology is also being deployed across the continent, working in tandem with extended producer responsibility (EPR) systems in order to generate mono-material streams, which are easier to recycle than mixed polyolefin fractions. Additionally, value chain players are doubling down on commitments to improve the recyclability of flexible plastic film, as well as incorporating an increased amount of recycled material into their products.

In spite of overall improvements, Plastics Europe states, many industry players are still seeking quick fixes rather than long-term solutions. The organisation cites Ceflex’s Quality Recycling Process as an example of a strategy that may not align with the objective of making flexible plastic household refuse entirely circular. Plastics Europe states that the process, which produces recycled film through hot washing and extruding collected material, will threaten well-established flexible plastic recycling operations, potentially bringing such efforts to a standstill. The process will also generate additional tonnage of mixed polyolefins, asserts the organisation, that is determined to end up in the already saturated injection moulding market.

The focus must be on further optimising the pre-existing plastic film recycling processes and solutions, rather than devising new methods of producing the material, albeit from a recycled source, states Plastics Europe. The uptake of recyclates within film applications is essential for the progression of the flexible plastic material industry towards circularity, the organisation stresses.

Ton Emans, President of Plastics Recyclers Europe and PRE LDPE-Working Group Chairman, commented: “Once deemed difficult to recycle, flexible household polyethylene waste recycling is a successful business case model of today. Fast-paced technological developments in collection, sorting and recycling, made it possible to recycle film back to film. Closed-loop recycling is the future of circular flexible plastic, placing Europe as a front runner of mechanical film recycling. This is a strong signal not only for investors but also brand owners, retailers, policy-makers and citizens.”

“This does not mean that there are no challenges. The main obstacles in targeting new high-end applications are multi-layer & multi-material products, which are not in line with the Design for Recycling principles.”

“Processes which propose only 20 per cent of the recycled film back to film applications and 80 per cent to injection moulding are a step backwards for our industry as they are not aligned with the principles of the circular economy. It will never be a profitable business case.”