Wageningen study: Dutch plastics recycling held back by unrecyclable packaging designs
26 May 2021 --- A new study from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) has revealed Dutch plastic packaging recyclability has not increased over the past seven years.
“The ‘wow’ moment from this research was when we saw that only 27 percent of the packages are well-recyclable,” lead author Marieke Brouwer, WUR researcher and project leader of sustainable packaging, tells PackagingInsights.
To place this figure in context, the Dutch national recycling target for plastic packaging is 50 percent for 2025 and 55 percent for 2030.
A previous WUR study found the Netherlands is theoretically capable of recycling 72 percent of plastic packaging waste.
“Of course we knew that a circular economy for plastic packages would take much effort, but it was interesting to see this in the large share of packages that still need to be redesigned.”
In an upward twist, the proportion of hard-to-recycle packaging has declined, while packaging that could potentially be recycled, called “future recyclable” in the study, has increased.
“The fact that a majority of packaging could be redesigned with minimal measures to become well-recyclable packages – which has not happened yet – was an eye-opener. Why have these changes not yet been made?” Brouwer questions.
Diving into the details
The report found there is room for Dutch plastic packaging recyclability improvements on multiple fronts. For example, 17 percent of Dutch plastic packages are currently only recyclable as mixed plastic, such as small PP-based flexibles.
Moreover, 18 percent of plastic packages lack the availability of large-scale recycling infrastructure, including PS packages and PET meat and fish trays.
Thirteen percent cannot be adequately sorted since the packages are either too small or have too large labels, which could be redesigned to be recyclable.
A quarter contain materials that cannot be separated and contaminate recycling streams, ranging from laminated flexible packages to detergent bottles with hand pumps and spray guns and butter tubs with residual aluminum top films.
Finally, only 1 percent is unrecyclable, which Brouwer views as “a good sign.” These are packages with unrecyclable silicone or PVC components.
No chemical recycling escape
The findings refer to mechanical recycling, as this is the dominant system in the Netherlands. “Chemical recycling can be interesting for specific recycling streams, but will not be the answer that will solve the issue of plastic package recyclability,” Brouwer says.
Many hard-to-sort packaging types can introduce impurities in the recyclate, regardless of using mechanical or chemical recycling technologies.
“Chemical recycling also requires very clean material streams to produce valuable oils, or else the recycling yields will be very low. Chemical recycling is also very sensitive to specific impurities as well, for instance chlorine, bromine, sulphur, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphor, which are mostly present in plastic packaging waste,” she explains.
In a video interview with PackagingInsights, Rabobank detailed how advanced recycling is increasing globally, with the number of plants expected to double to around 140 by 2025. While the nascent recycling technology is an important tool in the battle against plastic waste, the Dutch bank argues it is no silver bullet.
Interestingly, almost a third (29%) of packaging with restricted recyclability could be made more recyclable via design-for-recycling measures.
Brouwer indicates some packaging will remain difficult to design for mechanical recycling. However, there are many package types that could be made recyclable with relatively simple design-for-recycling measures.
“I am concerned there are still so many packages that could be designed for recycling, with, for instance, labels that are too big. If we observe that the easy changes have not yet been made, how are we going to proceed to tackle the more difficult issues?” she questions.
One “small important step” for Brouwer is replacing black plastic with different colors. Black plastic is typically undetectable at recycling centers, meaning it cannot be sorted and recycled.
Examples of recent color innovation include alcoholic beverage company Altia replacing the black handles on its wine bag-in-boxes with a colorless alternative. Meanwhile, Henkel uses a carbon-free colorant to enable recyclability for its Syoss bottles.
Other recyclable-by-design initiatives from the FMCG sector range from FrieslandCampina’s label “zipper” for enhancing the accurate sorting and recycling of PET bottles and Nestlé’s mono-PP baby food pouches.
Targeting FMCG and government
Brouwer hopes her findings will reach the FMCG industry and retailers to spread awareness that making packaging more recyclable is an urgent issue.
Consequently, WUR is organizing a workshop to share its study results with the packaging industry and provide insight into addressing these issues.
She also pinpoints government intervention as essential to facilitating change. “If we continue with the current laissez-faire politics, European countries’ recycling systems will remain expensive for the FMCG industry, without them being able to benefit from recycled content for their future packages.”
Previously, PackagingInsights spoke with WUR researcher Dr. Ulphard Thoden van Velzen, co-author of the beforementioned study, about his recent work regarding the mismatch in supply and demand for recycled plastic materials in non-food applications.
By Anni Schleicher
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