Last month, PlasticsEurope, the association of European plastic manufacturers, announced that it supports the Commission’s “proposal” for a mandatory EU recycled content target for plastics packaging, and called for a target of 30% for plastics packaging by 2030.
Recycled content would need to be derived from all “waste materials” through a technology-neutral approach that includes both mechanical and chemical recycling, whose ramping up was essential, with a credible mass balance framework.
PlasticsEurope defined the mass balance approach as a “set of rules that enables traceability between feedstock input and product output, and along the value chain to the producer of a final article [emphasis added]”.
The announcement marks a significant shift of the association from an earlier key recommendation to ensure that decisions to include recycled content remain a market choice, which it had made after the Commission adopted its European Plastics Strategy in 2018.
The association of European plastics converters (EuPC) swiftly responded to PlasticsEurope, warning the other organisation of the consequences of placing risks unilaterally on plastic converters (the customers of PlasticsEurope’s member companies).
That threatened supply bottlenecks, as was already the case with recycled PET, and seriously jeopardised the economic existence of thousands of medium-sized plastics processors and packaging users.
EuPC also called for the recognition of chemical recycling, which offered opportunities, above all, where waste streams are so heavily mixed and contaminated that they cannot be sorted and mechanically recycled, and to close the supply gap, for example, for recycled polyolefins.
However, EuPC said that it mainly relies on the further expansion of established mechanical recycling, and that under no circumstances should efforts to expand separate collection and design for recycling be pushed back in the hope that new technologies will make them obsolete in the foreseeable future (implicitly referring to chemical recycling).
EuPC also (correctly) pointed out that the Commission has actually not yet put forward a proposal for recyclate use quotas (which PlasticsEurope says it supports).
The European Recycling Industry Confederation (EuRIC) strongly welcomed PlasticsEurope’s “major step forward” (without referring to chemical recycling on this occasion).
However, one of its members, the German national recycling association bvse, came out hard against chemical recycling: The European plastics industry was launching a new greenwashing campaign, demanding to equate the “chemical treatment” of plastic waste with recycling.
That treatment was actually an “old hat”, currently “hyped” under the label of chemical recycling, although none of the processes were yet available at industrial scale.
There was no doubt that material recycling has a significantly better ecological balance, including CO2, than chemical recycling, which required a “chemical cocktail”.
The actual obstacle to plastic recycling could be solved: The key was design for recycling, which was only applied to “a fraction of the packaging”.
It was, therefore, regrettable that the plastics industry was now relying on a technology that had been lagging behind for decades, in order to avoid the solution.
Today’s approaches to chemical recycling were based on the use of material flows that had been successfully used in material recycling for many years, as both focused on the separately collected and sorted polyolefin packaging waste fractions.
Chemical recycling, comparable to waste incineration, ended the material flow instead of recycling it.
Only a fraction of its output was available for the production of plastics.
It was completely incomprehensible why the plastics industry focuses on the plastic packaging waste stream, while chemical recycling could actually develop into a better alternative to incineration of WEEE and ELV components.
However, in these fields, there were surprisingly few players in chemical recycling, because they were technically demanding. Bvse concluded that one can get the impression that the plastics industry is actually still not interested in the circular economy, but in solutions for simple and cheap disposal that affect its business model as little as possible.
After that statement, PlasticsEurope Germany announced the publication of a joint paper on ‘Research policy recommendations on chemical recycling’ with the German chemical industry associations VCI and DECHEMA.
PlasticsEurope Germany stressed that depending on the quality and composition of the plastic, different technologies, including mechanical and chemical recycling, can be advantageous.
In order to identify the best recycling routes, the waste management and the chemical industry had to work closely together.
However, there are still some hurdles to overcome for large-scale/industrial use of chemical recycling that require research, especially at the interface with hydrogen technologies, as chemical recycling required hydrogen that is obtained using electricity from renewable energies.
The EU introduced the first recycled content targets in the Single-use Plastics Directive 2019/904 (SUPD). Member States must ensure that from 2025, single-use plastic (SUP) beverage bottles made from PET contain at least 25% recycled plastic, and that from 2030, all SUP beverage bottles contain at least 30% recycled plastic, calculated as average of all relevant bottles on the territory of each Member State.
The Member States are expected to transpose their targets as product requirements, as Germany and France have, with varying degrees of flexibility for those placing the products on the markets.
In principle, this means that if the product does not contain the required share of recycled content, for example because suitable recycled plastic was not available, it is effectively banned.
This, and the apparent competition for recycled PET that may be used as food contact material (FCM), which has apparently developed, give rise to EuPC’s concerns.
In June 2020, its German member, the packaging association IK, had discussed substitution rates at the material or polymer level as an alternative, which would be addressed to the level of the supply chain that PlasticsEurope represents.
The Commission has indeed not yet put forward a proposal on recycled content in other products.
However, it is expected to so as part of the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) next year. It is currently considering whether to set them at the product or polymer level.
The Commission is expected to adopt rules for chemical recycling.
EU law has used the term “chemical depolymerization” since 2008 and “chemical recycling” in a recent delegated act on sustainable finance (which has not yet entered into force), without defining it specifically.
The legal definition of ‘recycling’ is technology-neutral, i.e. it does not define the process that turns waste into products, materials or substances (but excludes materials that are used as fuels).
The viability of at least for some of the various chemical recycling processes, also in relation to mechanical recycling, will arguably depend on the extent to which EU law will accept the so-called mass balance approach to calculate recycled plastic.
The definition that PlasticsEurope put forward for it could be interpreted as arguing in favour of a so-called group-level mass balance.
The SUPD tasks the Commission also with adopting rules on the calculation of recycled content by the start of 2022.
Ken Huestebeck is a Senior Associate in the Brussels Office of Squire Patton Boggs. Squire Patton Boggs is an international law firm with 45 offices in 20 countries. It was formed in 2014 by the merger of multinational law firm Squire Sanders with Washington, D.C. based Patton Boggs.
The opinions expressed here by Ken Huestebeck and Squire Patton Boggs are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.