How recyclate gives packaging a new life

Recyclate: It may be a clumsy term and a technical one at that. But it is an important one that conceals a significant contribution to humankind and nature. And we will no doubt hear it a lot more. Because plastic recyclates are recycled raw materials. They give packaging and other plastic products a new life.

© Quality Circular Polymers

Whether it’s shampoo bottles, yoghurt pots or toothpaste tubes, many forms of plastic packaging are reborn. After their first life they end up in the yellow bin or the yellow bag. And that’s where their new life begins. First, they are collected, then sorted and then processed into reusable plastic granulate – so-called recyclates, recycled plastic. Production companies turn these recycled raw materials into new packaging as well as household items, car parts, pipes, transport boxes and similar items.

From PET to HDPE: What do these abbreviations mean?

PE, PET or PP: Many people have come across these abbreviations. But what do they mean? There are different types of plastic – only some of them are used for packaging. One of these is polyethylene, PE for short, a thermoplastic that is mouldable at certain temperatures. Depending on the production process, PE can also be high density (HDPE, high density polyethylene) or low density (LDPE, low density polyethylene).

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a polyester, which is mainly contained in disposable and reusable bottles. Trays, cups, boil-in-bags and vacuum packaging are also made of PET. Polypropylene (PP) is quite a young plastic. Compared with polyethylene (PE), it is very tough and heat resistant; it is often used in food packaging because of its resistance to grease and moisture. Manufacturers also make containers for the microwave and bottle caps using PP.

Recycling packaging saves 3.1 million tons of CO2 in Germany each year.

And the recycling of all plastics, PE, HDPE etc., plays an important role in climate protection. Because using recycled plastics reduces CO2 emissions, saves primary raw materials and thus protects the environment. When manufacturers produce their goods from used plastics, they do not need to use crude oil as a raw material, which is usually hugely important in production. They also need less energy than in the production of new goods. And CO2 is reduced. A study carried out by the Öko-Institut found that consumers along with the dual systems in Germany reduce the environmental burden by reducing CO2 emissions by 1.9 million tonnes – simply by separately collecting and recycling plastics, metals and other lightweight packaging. An additional 1.15 million tonnes of CO2 are avoided by separately disposing of and recycling glass and packaging paper. Overall, this means around 3.1 million tonnes less CO2 per year. Recycling is thus a real contribution to counteracting the climate crisis1.

In Germany in 2017 almost 4 million tonnes of plastic were processed into packaging2. About 40 percent of that was sales packaging designed to be disposed of in the yellow bag or yellow bin after its first life3. The rest of the plastic was used for the production of returnable PET bottles and for industrial and commercial film. Just under 3 of the 4 million tonnes were returned to the waste stream after use in Germany. Almost 1.9 million tonnes of plastic recyclate are reused in new products or packaging.

The German Packaging Act gives tailwind to plastic recyclates

Although some companies are already working in a sustainable way and are using recycled materials in their products and packaging, recycling rates will increase in the coming years and even more recyclate will have to be used. The is stipulated by law. The German Packaging Act came into force at the beginning of 2019. Under the act, more than one of two plastic packages (58.5 percent) require recycling. The recycling rate is to rise even more by 2022, to 63 percent. The increased recycling rates will ensure that significantly more plastic packaging will be collected, sorted and recycled via the yellow bag or yellow bin. It is estimated that by 2022 up to one million tonnes of plastic recyclate from the yellow bag or bin alone will be reused.

The German Packaging Act provides incentives to help achieve this goal: For example, manufacturers will have to pay less for the disposal and recycling of packaging if they make greater use of recyclable plastics in production.

In Europe, almost everything is recycled

More than 95 percent of packaging waste from the yellow bag or yellow bin is sorted and recycled in Germany and other EU countries – far more than anywhere else. Exports to Asian countries are an exception. The exported packaging quantities are in the lower single-digit percentage range, with a downward trend. Regardless of where packaging from the yellow bag or yellow bin is sorted and recycled, plant operators must be certified to German guidelines and comply with recycling specifications.

1 Öko-Institut e.V. (2016): Recycling ist Zukunft – ökologische Leistungen und Potenziale des dualen Systems

2 Conversio (2018): Stoffstrombild Kunststoffe in Deutschland 20173 GVM Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (2018): Aufkommen und Verwertung von Verpackungsabfällen in Deutschland im Jahr 2016

3 GVM Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (2018): Aufkommen und Verwertung von Verpackungsabfällen in Deutschland im Jahr 2016