The Association of Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE) recently called for greater investments to be made for the implementation of separate recycling streams in the Member States. This call was totally supported by the European Bioplastics Association (EUBP) and is part of the current hot debates and careful consultations on the upcoming EU Strategy on Plastics and the revision of the EU waste legislation.
In a press release, PRE called for the development of separate recycling streams for biodegradable plastics to improve waste management efficiency throughout Europe. EUBP supports these efforts to ensure a high quality of recycled plastics, as mixing bioplastics, most of them being biodegradable, and petrochemical plastics in recycling streams is likely to induce a degradation of the quality of the recycled plastic (with the notable exception of sugar cane PE which mixes with fossil PE flawlessly as they are strictly the same polymer made of ethylene stemming from two different sources bur chemically identical).
Similarly, the use of non biodegradable plastic bags to collect organic waste alters the quality of compost made from the latter. In order to implement a circular economy throughout Europe and to achieve higher recycling rates, stronger investments in the modernization of the waste management infrastructure, including separate mechanical and organic recycling streams, are needed, as illustrated below.
Biodegradable Plastics Collection Bags Increase Recycling Efficiency
- Biodegradable plastics help to reduce contamination of mechanical recycling streams by facilitating separate collection of bio-waste and therefore diverting organic waste from other recycling streams.
- Organic recycling is a well-established industrial process ensuring the circular use for biodegradable plastics while creating a strong secondary raw material market and opportunity for renewable energy generation and compost production.
- Numerous beacon projects throughout Europe demonstrate the positive effects of compostable bags on the efficiency and quality of separate organic waste collection, including in the cities of Milan, Munich, and Paris. Currently, the share of biodegradable plastics designed for organic recycling sold in the EU is comparatively small. Therefore, the potential of misthrows by the consumer to reach a critical volume that could impact the quality of mechanical recycling streams is an unreasonable assumption at this point in time.
This has also been tested and confirmed in a recent study by the University of Wageningen (The Netherlands), which analyzed biodegradable plastics in mechanical recycling streams and detected levels not higher than 0.3%. When tested within the EU FP7 “Open-Bio” project, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research found that there were no negative effects on the properties of recycled film products containing starch film and PLA film recyclates. If biodegradable plastics products do, however, enter mechanical recycling streams, they can easily be sorted out.
Research by Knoten Weimar, a scientific knowledge-cluster and institute at the Bauhaus-University Weimar (Germany) focused on optimizing utilities and waste infrastructures, shows that available sorting technologies such as NIR (near infrared) can easily detect biodegradable plastics materials such as PLA (polylactic acid), PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate), and other starch or cellulose based materials.
On the other hand, however, contamination of organic waste streams by misthrows of non-biodegradable plastics is high and constitutes a real problem for composting facilities and negatively affects the quality of compost. This problem can only be tackled by establishing mandatory separate collection of organic waste supported and facilitated by the use of biodegradable plastics bags and packaging and accompanied by consumer education and information on correct ways of organic and mechanic recycling.
EUBP Urges for Efficient Recycling
- EUBP urges all involved stakeholders to consider recycling as both mechanical and organic recycling and to contemplate the corresponding plastic materials in this context.
- Furthermore, investments into sound waste management infrastructure across Europe as well as comprehensive projects to increase the consumers’ knowledge about correct disposal need to be considered.
- Only then, recycling can become more efficient, contamination can be limited, and a strong secondary raw material market in a circular economy can flourish.