Plastics recycling, part of the puzzle

How the industry continues to expand in Europe – Focus on PET

Interview with Casper van den Dungen, Vice President Plastics Recyclers Europe & PET Working Group Chairman

PETplanet: What is the state of affairs in the plastics recycling industry in Europe?
Casper: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the most widely used recycled plastics and at the same time the most widely recycled polymer destined for food contact applications. Just 20 years ago recycled beverage bottles (PET) were used to produce fibres (for strapping or clothing, for example). Back then the technology was not developed to allow recycling into food contact applications and no framework was set in place to regulate that.
Only in 2008, through Regulation 282/2008, a procedure for authorisation of recycling processes for PET in food contact applications was established. Following these changes, the market for recycled beverage bottles has been steadily growing and nowadays, the majority of PET beverage bottles are recycled via closed-loop systems back into packaging. The EU is the worldwide pioneer in terms of legislation on recycling and specifically on food contact recycling, as it has one of the most robust rules and standards, ensuring highest health and safety standards for this material. Many brands include recycled plastic to pack their mineral water bottles or soft drinks, as recycled PET can be used to make new food contact bottles with even 100% recycled content.
Beyond recycled material being used in bottles it is used, for example, in trays. Already 1 out of 2 trays (used to pack ham, cheese, salads), or blister packs incorporates rPET. Both of these applications were possible largely thanks to the EU targets introduced in 1994, their consecutive revision back in 2008, the establishment of the regulation on the use of recycled plastic in food contact materials, and finally the introduction of the Circular Economy Package in 2015.
Another important factor here, are massive advancements in recycling technologies, and, in general, within the value chain. The examples of technological developments include changes in the product design like intelligent labels which can indicate where to recycle the product. Additionally, sorting of products is no longer manual but has moved to more reliable automated systems which include robotic-like separation technology. These advancements helped overcome the limitations that were hampering the use of recycled materials in a broad range of applications including high value products. Some of these limitations include design for recycling of the products, their sortability or cleaning operations – to name a few. The optimisation of these processes at each step of the value chain started many years ago, paving the way towards PET’s circularity. Legislative incentives and technological advancements resulted in increased efficiency and effectiveness of the recycling processes, while increasing the sustainability of every new cycle.

PETplanet: How is PET recycling performing currently?
Casper: There is a steady move towards circularity of the PET industry in Europe. New study for collection, recycling capacity and production of PET for 2020 shows increases – in comparison to 2018 – in all measured factors. Major growth is observed, in particular, within the PET recycling market, with an overall 21% increase in the installed capacity, totaling 2.8 mt in EU27+3. Main new capacities which have been installed recently are the decontamination lines to convert the washed bottles or trays to food grade pellets.
Concerning the recycled PET market there is a potential shift away from virgin production towards recycled material production. In 2020, 1.7 mt of recycled PET was produced, with a steady growth within trays and sheets application, which with a 32% share remain the largest outlet for rPET in packaging, followed by beverage bottles with a 29% share. On the collection figures 61% of beverage bottles were collected & sorted for recycling in Europe – a 9% increase in comparison to 2018. Concerning the food contact grade of recycled PET, mechanical recycling is the predominant process with the highest benefits when it comes to CO2 savings. It is clear as well that the legislative framework contributed to increasing an uptake of food contact rPET. The legal requirement to include 25% rPET content in mineral and soft drink bottles by 2025 together with the collection target for PET of 90% by 2029 are the main drivers. This growth is to continue developing rapidly in response to producers’ pledges and average recycled content targets.
The new legislation impacted equally the developments of new Deposit Return Systems (DRS) which allow for a higher quality of collected material. This growth needs to be programmed inline to the what the current installed capacities can absorb. The availability of certified active statistical data is needed to help us in mastering this challenge.

PETplanet: Where do you see our industry in 10 years from now?
Casper: To reach the 30% recycled content target for beverage bottles by 2030, 3.6 mt of PET will have to be sent for recycling (in comparison to 2.2 mt sent today). In that scenario rPET would reach 55% of total PET demand by 2030 (compared to 26% of today).
The driving force for advancing both collection and recycling of PET is the legislative framework. The new EU Single Use Plastics Directive (SUP), which introduces specific targets on both collection and recycled material uptake, has already boosted the voluntary commitments and pledges of retailers, producers and brand owners alike. The value chain actors are, now more than ever before, focused on the integration of the recycled, food grade PET in their packaging products and declared a range of objectives to incorporate recycled content within their products.
Driven by these pledges and with the mandatory recycled content targets – the share of food-grade rPET in PET beverage bottle production is set to continue to grow rapidly.
New trends and developments within the industry do and will continue to emerge. For example, capacity for PET tray recycling lines have increased in the past few years and it is estimated that the tray recycling capacity will reach around 100 kt of PET trays in the next 2 to 3 years, which is 10% of trays placed on the market and little less than half of trays currently collected.
Recycling of this type of packaging will further add to the food grade volume, contributing towards the set targets.
Moreover, by 2025 it is expected that 19 EU Member States will have DRS in place for PET bottles. Today, seven EU Member States with established DRS achieve sorted for recycling rates of 83% or higher. This implies that with the EU SUP Directive collection rate targets already in place, the collection figures, as well as quality, are likely to increase substantially in the lead up to 2025.
As the EU is, on the global scale, the pioneer in terms of PET circularity thanks its extensive base of recycling companies, high-tech technologies and best practices it will have an impact on the countries across the globe by exporting its technologies and know-how.
Concerning the technological development there will be more smarter packages appearing on the market which will allow for a better separation of different PET applications. Another important development will be making textile products more circular, as today PET recycling is focused on packaging. For this new stream chemical recycling will be the key technology. New infrastructure is, however, needed to handle the collection and feedstock preparation for this new circular path.
Moreover, mechanical recycling with its best CO2 savings performance will remain the main practice for the industry in making PET circular, with chemical recycling being a complementary solution for new challenges to come.

PETplanet: Thank you so much Casper.