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Plastic recycling processes in industrialized nations pushed to improve

China seeks to end reign as global dumping ground

Despite the fact that Europe is a global leader in plastics recycling and in diverting plastics from landfills by using waste-to-energy programs that convert waste into power generation, Europe, along with many other industrialized regions, recently got another major incentive to increase its recycling effectiveness for plastics—the message that China no longer wants to be the world’s dumping ground for plastic waste, according to research from IHS (, the leading global source of critical information and insight.

As a result, says IHS, recyclers in Europe and other countries such as the U.S., Canada, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Australia, must improve their recycling technology processes as China, once the final destination for more than 70% of the world’s plastic waste, strengthens its ‘green fencing’ regulations to restrict types of plastic waste materials it will accept. China is the world’s largest consumer of recycled plastics, but relies heavily on imports—it imported 10.3 billion metric tons in 2012 according to IHS.

“China is increasingly concerned over degradation to its environment,” says Jim Glauser, specialty chemicals analyst at IHS Chemical and author of a report on plastics recycling. “The country has rejected shipments of waste deemed contaminated or unsuitable and officials are cracking down on hazardous materials that eventually go to Chinese landfills,” he says. Exporters of plastic waste have to improve their recycling processes, since fewer alternative markets exist to accept this waste, and frankly, much of the plastic still has significant value through reuse or energy recovery.”

China’s Green Fencing initiative, Glauser says, has turned the global recycling industry on its head. “Much of the plastic scraps once destined for China are now being exported elsewhere, and the global recycling equipment industry is working to expand its automation to improve waste sorting. Plastic manufacturers and producers of plastic goods are evaluating design guidelines to increase recyclability. One idea is the concept of resin markers, which would help recyclers assess contents of plastic waste to makes sorting easier. China also has an opportunity to grow its domestic recycling.” 

The issue of recycling, along with other aspects of the chemical industry in Europe, will be addressed at the upcoming 22nd Annual Polyethylene-Polypropylene Chain Global Technology and Business Forum, June 25-26, 2014, in Zurich.

Driven by densely populated areas, declining available landfill space, increasingly stringent regulatory policies and incentives to recycle plastic and other materials, Europe has long been a leader in waste recycling. In 2012, European plastics recycling and energy recovery reached 61.9%, broken down that amounts to 26.3% plastics recycling, 35.6% energy recovery, with the remaining 38.1% going to landfill. During 2006 to 2012, said IHS, the average amount of plastics post-consumer waste generated in Europe was 25 million metric tons (MMT).

However, there are huge discrepancies in Europe with regard to plastics recycling. Seven European Union (EU) countries, plus Norway and Switzerland, have introduced landfill bans for plastic waste, while another 10 EU member states landfill more than 60% of their plastic waste, according to the European Chemical Industry Council. Many Eastern European countries rely entirely on landfills to dispose of plastic waste.

In 2012, according to IHS, 82% of recycled plastics in Europe were plastic packaged products. The overall recovery of plastic packaging waste was more than 69% in 2012. In total, approximately 34% of plastic packaging waste was mechanically recycled, while 0.5% went to feedstock recycling and nearly 35% was used for energy recovery. These 5.4 MMTs destined for energy recovery went to both incineration plants and as refuse-derived-fuel. In 2012, around 26% of total post-consumer plastic waste in Europe was collected for mechanical recycling, 0.3% went to feedstock recycling and nearly 36% went for energy recovery. 

PlasticsEurope, an association of plastics manufacturers, is advocating for a ban on the landfilling of high-calorific plastic waste by 2020, which would prevent nearly 10 MMT of plastic waste from going into a landfill each year (equates to about 9 billion euros per year). Initially, the countries of key focus for the project would be the UK, Italy, Spain, France and Poland. The European goal is to have zero plastics going into a landfill, which “is an ambitious goal,” Glauser says, “but many policymakers are realizing that plastics and other calorific waste are too valuable to send to a landfill.”

Since the increasing global substitution of plastics for other types of materials will keep plastic waste in the public spotlight for many years to come, Glauser says, what will likely have to happen, “is that incentives must be made or more laws must be passed to stimulate higher quality recycling by extending collection and sorting services, and by keeping both recycling and energy recovery as viable alternatives to landfill.”

For this to happen in Europe and elsewhere, he says, “recycling processes must improve—we have to improve the collection, sorting and processing of these plastic wastes from a cost and quality point of view. Plastics that cannot be sustainably recycled should be used for energy recovery rather than sent to a landfill.”

Part of the challenge for recyclers, Glauser says, is that there is an unrelenting introduction of new plastic packaging materials with unique compositions tailored to provide superior performance characteristics for specific applications, which contributes to the increasing technical complexity of plastics recycling. Cost is also a big issue, he says. “A big part of what facilitates recycling programs is the cost of producing of new materials versus recycled material costs. According to our Competitive Cost and Margin Analysis Service at IHS Chemical, in Europe, producers face some of the highest linear low-density polyethylene product costs, so the cost analysis of recycled plastic versus virgin chemical is comparable if not in favor of recycling.”

 “The U.S. relies heavily on landfill,” says Glauser. “Approximately 75 to 80% of its plastic waste goes into landfills, while Japan disposes of more than half of its plastics waste by incineration. Western Europe uses a combination of both, including making the consumer pay for rubbish, as an incentive to recycle. Much of Western Europe and Japan view incineration as a valid recycling option.” 

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