Improvement options for the recycling chain of plastic packaging waste

Published on
August 29, 2018

Although the Netherlands is among the frontrunners in Europe when it comes to plastic recycling, companies still find it challenging to buy sufficient pure recyclates to use in new packaging. Realising improvements requires chain management that stimulates stakeholders to work together, aligns policy options and supports them with policies which offer the right incentives.

With its work on improvement options for the recycling chain of plastic packaging waste, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research provides a more detailed overview of the policy options for parties in the chain looking to enhance the quality and quantity of recycled material. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research studied which measures the chain parties can take to increase the quantity and quality of recycled plastic packaging. The research is part of the Sustainable Packages research programme of the KIDV and the Food & Nutrition top institute (TiFN), and includes cooperation with various universities and knowledge institutes.  

Predictive model

For the research, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research developed a predictive model based on the situation in 2014. It calculates how much recyclate or ‘washed material’ the recycling chain of household plastic packaging produces and the quality level.

The scientists first looked at which policy measures were possible for each link in the chain, then calculated the effects of the various measures using the model. Some measures are already ongoing or can be realised in the short term, while others will only be possible in the long term. But which measures will ultimately have the most effect?

Packaging companies

Packaging companies can design packaging that is better suited for recycling (also referred to as ‘Design-for-recycling’). A simple measure, for instance, is to change the material used for the cap so that it is more similar to the rest of the bottle material. This would result in a much purer and somewhat larger quantity of recyclate.

Municipalities and waste collectors

Municipalities and waste collectors can also make a considerable contribution by further implementing combined collection systems, such as the PMD system, and realising more post-separation. This would result in substantially more recyclate insofar as the influx of undesired materials is limited as much as possible.

Sorting companies

Sorting companies, the third stakeholder group, can help close the chain even further by aiming to achieve (better) quality via current technologies. As this is not in their interest in the current contractual agreements, the majority currently aims for quantity.

Recycling companies

As a fourth group, the recycling companies have a limited impact on the quantity and quality of the recycling stream, according to the scientists. They do expect the development of more circular applications for recycled PE to lead to an increase of recyclate that can be used in a circular way already in 2018. New recycling processes are needed to recycle two specific streams: PET containers and MIX, a collective stream of plastic waste which has yet to become very usable for processors.

Chain management

The research report provides insight into the extent to which the policy decisions of the chain parties can help realise a more circular plastic packaging chain. All individual policy options show small improvements in either the quality or the quantity of the recycling system. This does not mean that there is no room for improvement, however. What is required is chain management that stimulates stakeholders to work together, aligns policy options and supports policies with the right incentives.

The research was performed for the Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging, and financed by KIDV, TiFN and Wageningen Food & Biobased Research.