From waste to new life
What happens to plastics at the end of their life cycle? In 2020, two-thirds of Europe’s post-consumer plastic waste was sent for energy recovery or to landfill while only one-third was recycled. On a global level this looks even worse. Such an end not only causes CO2 emissions, but also wastes valuable resources.
Plastic recycling is intended to counteract this by keeping the plastic in the cycle and avoiding incineration and landfill. It also means less fossil raw materials are needed the produce new plastics, the carbon is locked in the product rather than released into the environment as CO2. This is referred to as a circular economy. The waste hierarchy of the European Union also considers recycling to be fundamentally advantageous over energy recovery. This begs the question: if recycling really has so many benefits, why isn’t it working everywhere? The answer is: Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple, because plastics recycling presents a number of challenges.
Why is so little plastic being recycled?
The key challenge for recycling is that the global re-collection infrastructure is not setup to return good quality material to the recycler. Hence, the recyclers are dealing with many different types of plastics with different properties and origins, some of which contain material mixtures - This diversity creates a challenge in meeting requirements for durability, safety, flexibility, or stability of the new recycled plastic. At the same time, it makes recycling processes complicated and costly. The most established, energy efficient and probably best-known approach to recycling plastic waste is the mechanical recycling process. Here, plastic waste is separated, washed, mechanically shredded and melted by an extruder for use in new products. This approach requires clean, homogeneous, and well-sorted waste streams. Contamination of the plastic waste in question makes mechanical recycling difficult. For example, food packaging often contains food residues that must be removed before recycling to obtain high-quality recycled material – known as recyclate.
No matter how homogeneous and well-cleaned a plastic waste is, or how optimized the mechanical recycling process is, the quality suffers with each recycling path, so that an endless iteration is not possible. Additive technologies can continue to prevent degradation and extend the service time of plastics but the material degrades over many multiple cycles. The recycled plastics no longer have their original performance and are thus limited in what they can do: they can no longer be used in their previous applications. This is called downcycling.
Another challenge is access to certain plastic waste streams. Take-back systems for certain end-of-life products and the dismantling of products still need to be driven forward in many places and raised to an automated level. Mobile phones or fridges, for example, are difficult or impossible to dismantle into their individual components in a cost-effective manner for recycling.
Most products are designed to consume as few resources as possible in their manufacture and use, while providing the required performance. This often results in efficient but very complex material structures that may not be easily reused or recycled. This is where the "Design for Recycling" comes in. The aim is to design products in such a way that they can be easily returned to the cycle at the end of their life, for example by using as few different materials and components as possible. However, this approach underestimates the fact that a less complex, more easily recyclable product may not always meet the requirements of the application. Manufacturers need to balance application requirements with the ease of recyclability.
In the case of chemical recycling in particular, another challenge is that the technology is not yet universally recognized and accepted. For example, the EU legal framework defines recycling in a technology-neutral way, but individual EU member states can decide for themselves to what extent chemical recycling contributes to achieving their recycling targets. In Germany, for example, chemical recycling is not yet recognized as a process that contributes to meeting the recycling targets for plastic packaging waste. In addition, full acceptance of mass balance approaches to allocate recycled content in products is needed – on the international, national, and regional level. As long as chemical recycling and the credit-based mass balance approach are not fully recognized, there will be a lack of legal certainty and incentives to invest in developing this technology.
Another challenge is that it is often unclear who bears the organizational and financial responsibility for the end of a product's life. Is it the manufacturer of the original material, such as BASF as a plastics manufacturer? Or is it the manufacturer of an end product, for example a company that manufactures new products using our plastics? Or is it the consumer who disposes of the product? The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approach attempts to solve this problem. The well-known Green Dot (“Grüner Punkt”) system is one example of such an EPR instrument for packaging. A Green Dot on a package means that the manufacturer meets its obligations and bears the costs of waste treatment for the packaging it places on the market. The EPR thus sends a signal and shows that manufacturers are organizing and/or paying for a system to ensure that their plastic waste is collected and recycled. At present, however the system is not widely implemented and is often utilized.
What does this environment mean for BASF?
In short, recycling is often easier said than done. Nevertheless, we at BASF cannot accept so many plastics being landfilled or incinerated, and we are aware of our responsibility as a producer. That's why we are continuously working on improving our portfolio and finding solutions to give this valuable material a second life. Together with our partners, we are working on various initiatives and projects to keep plastics in circulation. However, comprehensive plastic recycling cannot be achieved by individual companies or overnight. Instead, we must continue to work together to create the right technological, regulatory, and economic conditions.