There’s plastic and plastic

Conversation on the concept of recycling with Karel Krpan.

M. Costanza Candi

The FKuR Group, specialised in the production of bioplastic and recycled compounds intended for flexible packaging, technological applications, TPE and PP/PE compounds, offers the market extensive experience on the theme of packaging and sustainable materials. Karel Krpan, sales agent for Italy in FKuR Kunststoff GMBH, talked to ItaliaImballaggio about this, sharing a series of reflections starting from the relationship between industrial and post-consumption recycling, moving on to regulatory questions and market trends.

Enabling sustainable and informed choices

«The first problem that needs to be tackled - Krpan begins - is the consumer’s ability to distinguish between post-consumption plastic and post-industrial plastic. The plastic tax, which citizens hear about every day, refers, in fact, to post-consumption plastic, which is typically hybrid, contaminated and requires a complex processing cycle to be recycled. The distorting aspect in terms of materials is therefore determined by a market demanding for recycled plastic without distinguishing, or even ignoring, the existence of post-industrial material which is cleaner and homogeneous. Industrial waste is, in fact, often represented by a single material, with a low level of contamination, which is inserted into the wide concept of recycling while, in fact, it could be considered as a second raw material».

According to Krpan, the market has apparently created a bubble, in which the post-industrial material seems to assume a very high commercial value, being a convenient alternative to the more problematic post-consumption material.

«There are imaginative expressions, such as “contains internal recycled material” which, paradoxically, could lead to a deliberate excess of waste» continues Krpan. «The market therefore ends up looking for recycled material of any kind as long as it is declared as such.»

Krpan continues by referring to the disappointment of a paper-converter that, after having sent a sample of post-consumption LDPE film to their customer, was complained to because the sample was opaque, smelled and wasn’t attractive like that of other competitors that offered a generic “recycled” material.

«It’s necessary to understand that in polyolefins like LDPE and HDPE, with the current mechanical recycling of post-consumption material, it’s extremely difficult to obtain products “equivalent” to the virgin material. If the aim is a sustainable alternative with virgin performances, it’s advisable to turn to bio-based or hybrid solution products, such as those obtained with co-extrusions. It should be noted that there are supply chain certifications that properly distinguish between the use of post-consumption plastic and post-industrial plastic.»

Regulatory impact

To understand the mechanism better, Karel Krpan takes the reasoning to the extreme, hypothesizing a unique European instrument capable of regulating in real time. This would, in fact, prevent virgin material from being improperly treated as recycled to increase the quality perceived by customers. The push to use recycled material is, in fact, determined by national and European laws and regulations which have an impact on market dynamics and on industrial choices. On this point, Krpan continues:

«Packaging regulation is superseding the concept underpinning the Directives, leaving member States ample room for action driven by national interest. A classic example is provided by disposable tableware: to prevent it being classified as such, manufacturers have simply increased the thickness and carried out washing resistance tests. And now we have apparently washable and reusable products on the market, but of a quality perceived as being similar to that of disposable products.»

Chemical recycling vs mechanical recycling

The regulatory framework should, therefore, take into account existing technological solutions, driving the market towards being more sustainable on the basis of the type of material and on enterprises’ ability to use it. A pertinent example is the debate revolving around the mechanical or chemical recycling of post-consumption material.

«Europe is putting up strong resistance to chemical recycling, albeit heavily supported by multinational groups that can put in place compensation paths regarding renewables, decarbonisation and credits. As we know, in fact, chemical recycling makes it possible to unite the whole product without separation: thanks to pyrolysis, polymers are transformed into naphtha with a process that requires a high quantity of heat. As far as we know, Europe, in this context, aims to limit pyrolysis only to what cannot be subject to mechanical recycling, which is preferred, but without defining clear boundaries. The risk is that a very energy-intensive technology is preferred to more complex solutions, such as the construction of recycling supply chains based on specific materials. Pyrolysis could effectively be a game-changer to avoid sending a lot of hard-to-sort plastic, but it could also be a soft killer for the recycling supply chain and for all the efforts made so far in the development of mono-material solutions. It’s clear that the economic aspect, the regulations and technologies available will make the difference. Today, in fact, the mono-material is much requested by consumers and industry, but the question is: is the recycling system able to recognize the material and separate it correctly? Do we have recyclable solutions or only potentially recyclable ones? Many manufacturers of specific materials need to have their own supply chain in order to guarantee a correctly separated mono-material and it is here that the system has to arrive: separate by constructing homogeneous paths for different materials.»

The role of manufacturers

«The shared responsibility of the manufacturer becomes, therefore, strategic for the development of material and sorting technology for its correct recovery. It’s a complex solution in a market in which, conversely, many are pushing for the easiest and most impactful solution. Let’s consider shrink film. Does a low thickness film that requires less heat in shrink ovens make more sense than a thicker film containing recycled material that requires more energy? On the technical development front, therefore, the debate is open and needs Europe to take a position. In FKuR we are working to respond to every scenario. Next to the range of Bio-Flex® e Ceroflex® biodegradable and compostable compounds for film and injection, we distribute Braskem Green PE and Green EVA, polymers deriving from sugar cane on the basis of which we produce bio-based TPE (Terraprene®) and other long-lasting compounds with renewable sources (Terralene®). Finally, recently we have introduced high-quality post-consumption and post-industrial recycled material with high aesthetic qualities and particular functions.»

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