The new standard for recycled plastic

The chemical recycling technology from PureCycle and P&G has recently received a vote of confidence, as Nestlé becomes a partner for the commercialisation of their recycled polypropylene. This comes after SABIC and Plastic Energy announced the first commercial chemical recycling of mixed plastic waste to a range of polymers. The two technologies are very different, but they both produce virgin quality plastic from waste, in contrast to mechanical recycling that delivers a lower grade product. High quality and purity are essential for food contact applications.

Both chemical and mechanical recycling should contribute to bringing waste plastic back into use in a circular economy. There are signs that the European Commission has accepted this argument. A recent report on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan indicated that European Standardisation organisations have been asked to play a key role. Twelve new European Standards are expected by March 2020. They will develop criteria to measure ‘durability, reusability, reparability and recyclability’ for both products and their raw materials. 

Standardisation organisations such as CEN (European Committee for Standardisation) are often thought of as slow moving bodies, wading through the minutiae of technical detail. But their decisions have far reaching consequences when incorporated into European regulation. Importantly, decisions are made by professionals who come to a consensus using a scientific approach. Industry representatives can become observers and present their views to the committee members.  One example of the new Standards under development is entitled ‘General method for assessing the proportion of recycled material content in energy related products’ (PrEN 45557:2019).  It has sections exemplifying calculations of recycled content for glass, metals and plastics. As targets for recycled content are to be written into regulation, definitions are important. Plastic packaging has been assigned a target of 55 % recycled content. 

Although this is a draft Standard that can still be changed, it is clear that most chemically recycled plastic will be treated as recycled content. The mass of recyclate is assigned to product using an administrative allocation based on a mass balance approach over a specific period of time, with a maximum of one year. The calculation of material efficiency and energy use associated with keeping raw materials in repeat cycles of manufacture, use, collection and reconstitution also need to be standardised, so processes and materials can be compared. The PureCycle process will require energy to recycle the solvent that removes colour, odour and other contaminants. The conversion of waste plastic to a liquid in the SABIC/Plastic Energy process will not be one hundred percent efficient.  

To ensure that plastic retains its key role of protecting and preserving life’s essentials like food and medicines, it is important for industry to engage with ongoing European standardisation. A new association, Chemical Recycling Europe, has been announced. Its first job will be to guarantee chemical recycling remains the gold standard for producing high quality recycled plastic.

Published: 27 March 19

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