Although the volume of plastic recycling in Europe has improved, initiatives are being developed to increase the weight of recycled plastic.

According to Eurostat, each European generates an average of 34 kilos of plastic packaging waste per year, of which around 14 kilos is recycled. Over the last decade, the volume of plastic packaging waste generated per inhabitant increased by 24%, while the recycling rate of plastic packaging waste grew by almost 50%. However, there is considerable room for improvement in areas such as the collection of plastic waste, its arrival at recycling plants and the quality of some virgin plastic packaging, which prevents it from being reused or makes the recycling process more costly and complicated.

Initiatives that have been launched

For about a decade, the European Union (EU) has been strongly committed to favoring a circular economy. In the particular case of plastic, in 2015, the European Parliament approved the restriction of disposable plastic bags. Later, in 2018, the European Commission presented a proposal to tackle the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the sea, focusing on specific measures to combat single-use plastics.

Europe has been committed to circular economy for a decade by improving plastic recycling volume

A year later, in 2019, the European Green Pact called for 55% of plastic packaging waste to be recycled by 2030. In addition, other initiatives were developed, such as the introduction of quality standards for secondary plastics or the design of mandatory rules on the minimum recycled content of certain products. In parallel, the Commission has been issuing various standards in recent years aimed at reducing the volume of microplastics on the market.

How is plastic recycling done?

In Europe, the main recycled plastic material is PET thanks to its unique properties, which make it very attractive to many industries. These include its light weight, its transparency (which makes it ideal for consumer packaging, for example in the food sector), its high level of resistance and impermeability to microorganisms and liquids, its resistance to heat and abrasion, its great flexibility, and the fact that it is fully recyclable, in many cases indefinitely, and that it can be used for a wide range of applications.

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In addition, PET has the highest safety certifications, which makes it a completely safe material and very economical to manufacture. In fact, it can be recycled in three ways:

  • Mechanical recycling: The plastic is separated, cleaned and ground in recycling plants, removing toxic elements to generate new products.
  • Chemical recycling: Through different processes, such as methanolysis or glycolysis, PET molecules are separated to make new PET.
  • Energy recycling: PET is burned and recovered to generate heat that can be used by a factory for industrial activities or to generate electricity.

In the case of, for example, REPETCO, the company has been able to develop its own patented, nature-friendly system for multilayer PET/PE food packaging. By means of a unique process, rPET pellets and rPET are generated that can be used again in the food industry with multilayer PET/PE trays and sheet packaging; in bottles for soft drinks or detergents; and in fibers for the food industry.

Mechanical recycling takes off in Europe

According to an AMI study entitled ‘Mechanical Plastics Recycling 2022’, the production of recycled plastics in 2021 through mechanical recycling processes was 8.2 million tons and is forecast to grow at a rate of 5.6% per year until 2030. Last year, the mechanical plastic recycling rate in Europe was 23.1%, with around 35 million tons of plastic entering the waste stream. According to this document, still a large part of the waste generated in the Old Continent is not collected for recycling or is lost in the sorting process, eventually ending up in landfills.

Although the report assures that during the next few years there will be a very significant growth in the volume of mechanical plastic recycling in Europe, it also states that the coronavirus pandemic has caused a reduction in the growth of recycling plants. For this reason, it advocates stimulating the development of strategies from the public sector to increase both the volume of plastic waste recycled in households and the percentage of this material that reaches the plants for its appropriate treatment and subsequent availability to other industries for its reuse.

Other articles of interest: What will the European Circular Economy strategy mean for rPET packaging?