Fact check recycling and recyclate: quotas, capacities, processes

Mahlgut aus geschredderten ehemaligen Plastik Teilen in Plastiktüte mit Musterplättchen und Neuware mit Reagenzglas

In the third contribution to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) series, we examine the topic of “Recycling and the use of recyclates in practice” for you. What are the requirements? What are the goals to be achieved? Where do we stand in real terms? We analyze for you the situation regarding recycling rates, recycling capacities, recyclate production and the use of recyclates in new packaging. And we shed light on the role of so-called “chemical recycling”, which is a sticking point in the overall complex of the topic.

 

On July 14, 2021, the EU Commission presented concrete proposals for a new climate, energy, transport and tax policy. The package, known as the “Green Deal”, identifies the circular economy as the top 1 priority of the measures.

With regard to the topics of recycling and the use of recycled materials for plastics, there are two overarching goals in establishing circular economy:

  1. Increasing the recycling rate
  2. Increasing the amount of recyclate used

 

Targets and status of recycling rates

  • An initial guide is provided by meeting the target for the recycling rate for plastic waste as set out in the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. The target is 50 percent by 2025 and 55 percent by 2030. In 2018, the rate of recycled plastic waste in the EU averaged an estimated 42 percent.
  • In addition, the requirements of the Packaging Act (VerpackG) come into play in Germany. They are even more ambitious and have required a recycling rate for plastic packaging of 58.5 percent since 2019. This requirement was met in 2019 with a precision landing. From 2022, however, the required quota will rise to 63 percent.

 

Recycling capacity targets and status

  • The EU 28+ (including Norway and Switzerland) had a total recycling capacity of more than 8.5 million tons for all polymers in 2019. The shares of recycled polymers were distributed as follows:
    • PET about 30 percent
    • LDPE 29 percent
    • HDPE/PP 20 percent
    • PVC 10 percent
    • PS 0,5 percent
  • Five EU countries accounted for 67 percent of total recycling capacity.
  • Germany alone accounts for 1.9 million tons of European recycling capacity. That is 22.4 percent and thus almost a quarter of total EU capacities.

 

Goals and status in recyclate production

  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) goals measure in the production of recycled plastic. By 2025, the production of recycled plastic is to be expanded to a total volume of 3.7 million tons. In 2020, the signatories’ recycling capacity was already at a volume of 1.1 million tons, according to EMF’s Progress Report. This represents a 28 percent growth compared to 2018.
  • The increase in recyclate volumes used is to be achieved by expanding recycling capacities and increasing the use of recyclates in new packaging.
  • In Germany, close to 2 million tons of recyclate were recovered in 2019 and used domestically to manufacture plastic products.

 

Goals and status in the use of recyclates

  • The share of recyclate from post-consumer waste (PCR) going into new plastic packaging in this country was just over 10 percent in 2019, or a volume of 0.5 million tons.
  • EMF is pursuing a target of 25 percent recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025. In 2019, the share was 6.2 percent. This is still a large gap in absolute terms but represents growth of 22 percent year-on-year.
  • Under EU law, PET beverage bottles must consist of 25% recyclates from 2025.
  • The EU Commission has announced that it will present a proposal for guidelines on the use of recyclates by the end of 2021 or early 2022 as part of the European Packaging Directive. The objectives of the new directive include making all packaging in the EU recyclable by 2030 and introducing a mandatory use quota for recyclates in plastic packaging.

 

Ensure security of demand

In order to ensure the security of demand for recyclate that is so important for the industry, PlasticsEurope, as one of the leading representatives of the European plastics industry, believes that the quotas for the recycled content in packaging must be increased. Accordingly, in a recent publication dated September 2021, the organization advocates a revision of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and calls for a specific new target of 30 percent recycled content in packaging by 2030.

 

Sticking point: Chemical recycling

In order to be able to increase the proportion of recycled material accordingly, recycling capacities must naturally first be ramped up. This is the only way to increase the recycling of plastics. This can only be achieved by supplementing material processes with alternative approaches and by combining material and chemical processes.

The problem with mechanical recycling processes: Here, capacity building is stuck. This is primarily due to the inadequate interaction between the EU Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in the amendment of Regulation 282/2008 and the resulting legal uncertainty.

“Chemical recycling” could provide a remedy. Numerous development projects are currently underway in this area. In May 2021, for example, various plastics producers announced investments worth billions. These are to increase from 2.6 billion euros in 2025 to 7.2 billion euros in 2030. This is expected to yield 1.2 million tons of recyclate by 2025. By 2030, the volume is to increase to 3.4 million tons. Of the 3.4 million tons promised by 2030, 3 million tons are already in the concrete planning stage.

In the coming years, it is expected that the share of processes available on the market and thus the share of chemically recycled plastic waste will continue to increase.

The catch: currently, recyclate quantities from chemical recycling may not yet count toward the recycling quota. But there is movement: In a position paper, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has already assigned the solvent process to the mechanical processes, which would allow it to be counted.

 

Conclusion

The facts show three things quite clearly:

  1. An increase in recycling capacities and the corresponding infrastructure are urgently needed.
  2. A market with secure supply and demand can only be guaranteed through a recyclate input quota. Otherwise, we will not be able to achieve the ambitious recycling targets in Europe.
  3. Increasing recycling capacities, recycling rates and the quantities of recyclate used must go hand in hand.

With regard to “chemical recycling”, it is to be hoped that the EU Commission will only take into account those processes that provide a relevant ecological advantage compared to the use of virgin plastic.

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