2023. szeptember 04.
The laws of physics and chemistry should not be overridden by legislators
The plastics industry will face significant challenges in the coming years between 2025 and 2030. European Plastics Pact has been committed using an average of 30% recycled plastic in finished and packaging materials. Currently, according to a report published by European Plastics Pact, the average proportion of recycled plastic used in 2021 was still only 10%. For the time being, there is no legal obligation to set a mandatory recycling rate, but it is clear that European decision-makers are also looking for reasons and opportunities. There are circumvention regulations, such as the End-of-life vehicles Regulation, which requires projects starting in 2025 to design 25% recycled plastic. Practically, this will affect cars that will go into production in 2030-31. Regulation on packaging materials and other plastic products is also expected to enter into force by this time.
Recycling is not new, many companies across Europe make a living from it. Experience so far shows that on the one hand there are few high-quality recyclates, and on the other hand, even high-quality regranulates have limited use. Until 2020, regranulates were mostly used to reduce material costs and to manufacture cheap, technically undemanding products, but now the situation will change. On the one hand, the widespread use of regranulates from 2030 will be an expectation and an obligation. In Hungary alone, we have to count on the use of 200,000 tons of high-quality regranulates. Is that all? Not yet.
Recognizing this fact, a voluntary project was launched as an umbrella organization within the Hungarian Plastics Association with the aim of assessing and defining the regranulate needs of the industry. Then, with the help of recyclers, an ideal waste demand is determined. The results of the project were handed over to MOHU MOL Waste Management Ltd., but the results are freely available to anyone. The participants of the project come from the domestic plastics industry, who carry out this task at the expense of their free time. They are partly members of the Hungarian Plastics Association and partly non-federated. It is important to note that there is no principal, there is no external funding, and consequently there is no external influence or pressure. The main goal is the professional common good, i.e. to create a broad consensus in the plastics industry regarding the use of regranulates and the mandatory recycling rate. The work is carried out by plastic type: PP, PE, PVC, PS. We do not deal with PET, as it is mostly already solved.
The polypropylene part has already been concluded, below we would like to present the result of this.
(a) Compilation of a basic table containing typical uses. Process type/Application/typical flow index range (typical MFR). This structure shows how plastic processing is divided into “product-by-product”. The table contains 77 rows.
(b) Asking processors what type of regranulate they need.
Flow index (MFR)
Other technical parameters
(c) Insertion of the data received from processors in the corresponding row of the table.
(d) Determination of waste requirements for the required regranulates, i.e. from which the desired granules can be produced.
OUR FINDINGS ON POLYPROPYLENE
Our first and most important finding is that processors are not chasing wishful thinking. Anyone who uses regranulates knows what the possibilities are. The requests received covered the daily practice.
Most requests were received for PP injection types. The primary reason for this is the habit of processors, currently they only use these types and do not think about anything else. In addition to the currently used methods, only these types can be manufactured.
Of the 77 rows of our basic table (77 representing different typical PP types), only 15 have regranulate needs or solutions. One reason for this is that due to thermal shock and degradation of polymer chains, MFR will increase during recycling, so we cannot make similarly low flow index regranulate from low-flow index waste. Thus, they fall out. A good example of this is woven textile, as a result of its recycling, fibers with a flow index of 3-4.2 can be made into a type of injection with a flow index of 5-6-7-8. The most valuable waste is plastic products with a very low flow index.
MFR ≤1 products typically do not enter the waste stream as they are permanently incorporated as pipes or plates. Furthermore, in this segment – typically extrusion applications – strength and in many cases pressure resistance are key criteria, therefore the use of regranulate is not preferred by processors either.
The next level is the waste category between 2.5-4 flow index: PPH rafia and PPH BOPP products. These could be the basis for PP recycling. The biggest problem with BOPP waste is that BOPP is typically used in the packaging industry for lightweight unit packaging, such as chips and candy. This also means that waste is fragmented, so collecting it would be extremely complex and, despite the great effort, only very small quantities could be expected. Another problem is contamination of the packaging material. Currently, there is great competition in the market for high-quality printing or packaging BOPP waste. In the case of woven textiles, the problem is the seam, and in the case of big-bags, the presence of foreign matter: polyethylene and other contaminants.
A significant problem is that if color sorting is not carried out from the coloured waste, only black regranulates can be made, while processors would like to have lighter coloured or transparent regranulates.
Although the most important polypropylene application in the field of fiber production would be demand, there is practically no supply. This is due to the fact that fiber production technology is the most sensitive to MFR fluctuations, therefore stable molecular weight distribution and granule homogeneity are important. Even rafia types cannot be used as recycled rafia, since in their previous state the molecular chains are elongated, so they cannot be stretched further during recycling.
Applications with higher flow indexes, mainly injection moulding and blow molding, are already practised, but there are currently no regranulates available in Europe in either the food or pharmaceutical sectors, despite the fact that according to the schedule set by European Plastics Pact, food-grade regranulates must already be available in PP in 2024-25.
In summary, it can be stated that even maintaining the current situation and rPP product range in Hungary is questionable, primarily due to international competition for available high-quality waste. Therefore, separate collection of the following PP wastes would be important.
We have not received unrealistic demands from plastic processors, but this means not only that companies are realistic, but also that the vast majority do not expect a mandatory recycling rate as an obligation. Most people think that there will be no such requirement in their specific area. They are wrong. Decision-makers and legislators are laymen, idealists. They have hammers, and the plastics industry is just one nail among many that needs to be hammered.
Therefore, the main task for all plastics processors now is to think about how they can meet the requirements of the mandatory recycling rate. In what area, how much do you expect to need? And share these needs with us so that we can incorporate them into our model (email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Will there be a solution, will everyone have sufficient and appropriate quality regranules? Based on our investigation, we can already say that in the case of PP NO. There is neither sufficient quantity nor waste of sufficient quality and purity. There are significant tasks in the field of selective waste collection and waste sorting. There is room for improvement. But no advanced waste management system can reverse the degradation of polymer chains, increase flow index, or solve the problem of packaging fragmentation.
What can we do? First and foremost, we will continue to work on other polymer types. The second most important thing is to gain allies. We will share the methodology and results with the Central European partner associations and prepare a joint resolution at the Central European Plastics Meeting (www.plasticsmeeting.com) in Budapest in September 2023. We need to make sure that the laws of physics and chemistry are not overridden by legislators.
myCEPPI MANAGING DIRECTOR
HPA/MMSZ MEMBER OF BOARD