Recycling - An essential measure for the circular economy

RPC Tedeco-Gizeh, the only British manufacturer of vending machine cups, has adopted one solution for the recycling of plastic cups. Together with BPI Recycling, its affiliated company, it offers all operators of drinks machines a collection service, recycling the cups recovered to manufacture new products. One exemplary initiative deserving of mention is STOP (Stop Ocean Plastics). Launched by Borealis AG and SYSTEMIQ in conjunction with the Norwegian government, Nova Chemicals, Borouge and Veolia, STOP has now gained a new strategic partner - namely Nestle, the world's largest food company. The common goal here is to make a pioneering contribution to the prevention of marine pollution in Southeast Asia. Nestle has also pledged to ensure that all its packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2025.

Numerous recycling concepts are already in operation

PET bottles are the perfect example of packaging items that are perfectly recyclable, mainly on a bottle-to-bottle basis and not infrequently to a rate of 100%. The proportion of PET bottles recycled in Europe in 2017 totalled 58.2% percent.

This said, striking differences are evident between countries. Whereas recycling rates of up to 95% are recorded in Germany and Finland, a study conducted by PETcore indicates that some Mediterranean countries struggle to achieve 40%. Vöslauer, the Austrian mineral water producer, switched to 100% R-PET bottles at the beginning of 2019 for all its water varieties, and this was extended to its flavoured range in April.

Vöslauer itself reports that it has even succeeded in reducing material consumption by around one quarter when compared to other R-PET bottles. Coca-Cola has also been very active for years now in efforts to offer customers more sustainable bottle variants. The corporation is now taking further steps with regard to chemical recycling of PET packaging which is then used to manufacturer new bottles. A PET upcycling plant is currently being established in the Netherlands in cooperation with the Dutch start-up Ioniqa Technologies in Eindhoven.

Effective collection and recovery systems have also existed for some time now for PVC window profiles, and the volumes involved here have increased from year to year. Within the Rewindo recycling initiative, an amalgamation of leading German plastic profile manufacturers succeeded in 2015 in processing over 27,000 tonnes of recycled material from old windows, roller blinds and doors and refeeding it back into the production process. In conjunction with waste from the plastic profile cutting required for tolerance production of new plastic windows, over 100,000 tonnes of recovered PVC found its way back onto the market. Rewindo says that this saves resources and energy and contributes to a reduction in the carbon footprint.

There are, of course, numerous other functional recycling systems (e.g. for PE bottle crates) which cannot all be mentioned here, but it can generally be said that the purer a recovered plastic is, the better it can be reprocessed for new products.  Genuine cases of production waste have been practically eliminated. This is either returned directly to the current production process, or forwarded to specialised processing companies. One of these is Hoffmann + Voss GmbH in Viersen/Germany. It specialises in the treatment of engineering plastic waste, refining it to produce high-quality recompounds which are used in the automotive industry in place of new materials.

Reprocessing is always more difficult where mixed plastic waste is involved, but even here functional concepts already exist, as evident in Hahn Kunststoffe GmbH in Hahn/Germany. Every year, around 50,000 tonnes of waste from the mixed fraction are given a new lease of life in the form of railings, noise barriers, posts, bollards, flower boxes, waste containers and playground or municipal furnishings.

Although these recovery concepts are effective and interesting in themselves, the question does arise as to the practicality of processing all residual plastics, or whether it would be better to use those which are difficult to recover as fuel to replace fossil resources in incineration plants.