Planet 4 min
Once a plastic, forever a plastic
Do plastics still have a future after a lifetime of faithful service? The words "plastic waste" often conjure up images of recycled packaging. However, plastics have established themselves in other areas such as the construction and automotive industries, where they already account for almost 30% of the increasing production of these materials. What do we do with used plastics? As the concept of the circular economy gains increasing traction, the question requires an answer.
Once a plastic, forever a plastic
Once a plastic, forever a plastic

Waste: a problem or a resource?

My waste has a future

Worldwide, the annual production of plastic exceeds 300 million tonnes, 40% of which is produced in Asia. European production has stabilised after a 50% increase over the course of ten years. Plastic Fantastic? Yes, certainly, although the old continent produces 25 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, over 63% of which is used in packaging. Ideally, the waste should be collected in its entirety in order to be reused, either through recycling - a process known as material recovery, or by exploiting its calorific value. This latter process is known as energy recovery. Plastics are also as powerful a source of energy as oil. Incineration of plastics can produce heat, which could be used in urban heating, and electricity. Alas, although 26% of all plastics are recycled and 36% are converted into energy, almost 40% of all plastics end up in landfills. Such a waste!

Europe: not bad but could do better

For manufacturers, the choice of using recycled materials is made on the basis of various well-defined criteria: price, quality and availability of the resource. However, recycled resin remains a relatively rare raw material despite high demand from consumers. In order to permanently increase the share of recycled plastics in new products, putting plastic waste into landfills should no longer be the easy option, and in fact it should no longer be an option at all. Europe has done good work in this respect. Between 2006 and 2012, the quantity of plastics put into landfills has decreased by a quarter, "falling" to 9.5 million tonnes. There are still large disparities within the Union and all countries are not making the same efforts. While some are lagging behind with recycling rates of less than 12%, the best recycle almost 40% of their plastics. In these latter states, landfilling is prohibited and the overall material and energy recovery rate has increased to 99%. QED.

Quand certains sont à la traîne avec des taux de recyclage inférieurs à 12%, les meilleurs recyclent près de 40% de leurs plastiques. Chez ceux-là, la mise en décharge est interdite, et le taux de valorisation globale (matière et énergétique) grimpe jusqu’à 99%. CQFD.

All about packaging

Why are many products packed in plastics today?
And what shall be done with the packaging when it becomes waste?
All the answers in clicking here!

A sorting issue

Landfilling is not the only obstacle to the development of recycling. Collecting and sorting plastics is an especially crucial and complex step. It requires perseverance and proper sorting practices from one and all. Although plastics are lightweight, this being one of the keys to their success, the flip side is that a very large amount of plastic bottles needs to be collected in order to obtain a tonne of material - a larger volume than for any other type of material! Another reason for the success of plastics is their variety and the various combinations of materials that can be obtained when they are combined amongst themselves or with other materials, e.g. metals or glass. Current sorting technologies enable the main plastics to be identified and waste from the same types of plastics to be consolidated as a result. Objects or parts made from a single material are thus easier to sort and therefore to recycle.

The most emblematic example of this is PET bottles. However, things get tough when several materials were used to make the used object. This is the case for some types of packaging, but also for many of our products, parts of electrical and electronic equipment, furniture, vehicles, etc. Energy recovery sometimes remains the most cost-effective option, both ecologically and economically.

Finding the right balance

The quality of resins is another determining factor. The main challenge for a recycled material is to ensure that its quality be as close as possible to that of the virgin material. The market for recycled materials is still too new to have reached maturity. This last point is critical! Fortunately, sorting technologies are changing and in many cases they enable resins with properties equivalent to those of the virgin materials to be obtained at the end of the chain. One final obstacle remains: that of economic relevance. Labour costs relating, for instance, to the dismantling cars or the cost of transport between the collection point and the place of processing are all parameters which need to be assessed with as much precision as possible. The stakes are high given that each recycling circuit must find the right balance between ecological benefit and economic benefit.

The objects making a name for themselves

Certain manufacturers and designers delight in the challenge of using recycled plastics. Every year, the European Association of Plastics Recycling and Recovery (EPRO) organises a competition to reward the most original object created from recycled plastics. This year, the Norwegian company 'Scandinavian Business Seating' took first place with its ergonomic and innovatively-shaped office chair. 100% of the polypropylene with which it was manufactured comes from recycling, just like all the other materials used to create the chair. Designing an original object from recycled plastics has even become a unique selling point. Manufacturers do not try to hide the fact; in fact, they even boast about it. As for consumers, they are also usually quite proud to contribute to the endeavour, both through their sorting practices and their buying habits.

Examples of this are popping up everywhere and some even cause much ink to flow, like the dress from Italian company Filatura Saluzzo which is entirely woven from polyester fibres from PET bottles. The real achievement was developing a fibre with properties identical to those of virgin polyester.

Farmers also do their part

The agricultural industry is also assessing the processing of the waste from its plastic packaging. In 2012, the Plastics & Environment Association (APE - Association Plastic Environnement) was created in order to study the implementation of sustainable value chains in Europe. Meanwhile, the French Committee of Agricultural Plastics launched the RAFU project (Recycling, Agricultural, Used Films) to improve the collection and recycling of contaminated polyethylene- or polypropylene-based films. In 2011, only half of the canvas for mulching, wrapping and other films for greenhouses sold each year in France was recycled. An unfortunate figure which all stakeholders - farmers, agricultural plastics manufacturers and recycling specialists, have strived to improve by setting up their own recycling systems.

The sector's professionals have given themselves four years to develop new techniques to limit the amount of contamination in the collected plastics and thus reduce the cost of recovery. All used agricultural films are recycled; most frequently to produce other plastic films. They can also be used for the manufacture of trash bags or covering tarpaulins. This voluntary approach is bearing fruit since 49,600 tonnes were collected in 2014, half way through the allocated period. This is a 10% increase as compared to 2013, covering nearly 3/4 of agricultural plastics of which 98% will be recycled. The first conclusions will be drawn within a year and all indicators seem to point to this initiative being imitated in the rest of Europe.

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