PPRC Europe 2022: Friendly competition, for now
From left: James Marshall, Fiberight Ltd.; DeAnne Toto, Recycling Today (session moderator); Jeremy Blake, Berry Circular Polymers; Samuel Martinez, Greenback Recycling Technologies Ltd.; and Philippe De Munter, Tesil Fibres/PET Baltija.

PPRC Europe 2022: Friendly competition, for now

Mechanical recyclers of plastic are keeping an eye on a chemical recycling sector that says it wants to target hard-to-recycle plastic scrap.

November 21, 2022

If household consumers and waste management companies can be convinced to increase the collection of plastic scrap, existing and new technologies can be deployed to recycle it. That was the message from panelists during a session on recycled-content polymers at the 2022 Paper & Plastic Recycling Conference Europe, held in mid-November in Rotterdam.

The four panelists included one firm with an advanced or chemical recycling investment underway: United Kingdom-based Greenback Recycling Technologies; another U.K,-based firm called Fiberight Ltd. using a newly developed Hydracycle process; and two mechanical reprocessing firms: Latvia-based PET Baltija and U.K.-based Berry Circular Polymers.

Jeremy (Jez) Blake of Berry Circular joked that his business unit of the wider United States-based Berry Global packaging firm, is the “tree-hugging hippie part of the company, trying to save the planet” from the plastic products made by the wider company. To that effect, Berry Circular will soon be recycling about 50,000 tons per year of discarded plastic films and rigid containers.

Also on the mechanical recycling and reprocessing side is PET Baltija. As the company’s name implies, it seeks out discarded polyethylene terephthalate, handing some 70,000 tons per year “and still growing,” according to Philippe De Munter.

De Munter came to PET Baltija recently via its acquisition of the Czech Republic-based Tesil Fibres. While PET Baltija had been focusing on converting collected PET scrap into food-grade rPET, Tesil spins its materials into spooled fibers that can be used to make carpet backing, auto components or absorbent diaper material.

On the chemical recycling side, Samuel Martinez of Greenback said that firm is taking a “distributed” or small-scale approach to sighting chemical recycling capacity. The end products it intends to produce can serve as a feedstock within the “poly chain,” including for food-contact applications, Martinez said.

James Marshall of Fiberight said that firm is installing a larger-scale “Hydracycle” sorting and reprocessing plant in South Wales in the U.K. He said the Fiberight facility will have access to sometimes difficult-to-recycle materials from 85 waste collection jurisdictions in the U.K., with a 10-year contract in place.

He said the firm’s greater challenge might not be supply but rather securing the best off-take agreements for the recycled-content flakes and pellets it intends to produce. “Derisking the offtake is incredibly difficult” currently Marshall said, in part because of European “waste” export directives that are in the process of changing.

De Munter said price swings are a current challenge, but he does not see Tesil customers in the automotive sector backing away from recycled-content goals. That sector, he said, is “not swinging back to virgin” plastics. In addition to price volatility, he cited narrow auto industry specifications as a Tesil Fibres challenge, commenting the firm does not simply produce black recycled plastic for that market, but “18 different shades of black” for different automakers.

Martinez does not see mechanical and chemical recycling firms as bidding against each other for material. “We are not competing with mechanical recyclers,” he said. “I call it a cascade,” said Martinez, with discarded plastic heading to reprocessors of different types depending on where it sits on the quality and purity chain.

Simply recycling more plastic is a primary objective, said panelists, in light of the negative reputation plastic holds in the minds of some Europeans. “We have to be broad-shouldered and just take it; to steel ourselves and be more positive,” Blake said of the criticism. He said producing and collecting “perfectly recyclable plastic” is the best antidote to the criticism.

“I remain optimistic,” said De Munter, a multidecade veteran of the plastics industry. Plastic recycling, he said, “will continue to improve and continue to be accepted. The EU should stop demonizing plastic. We could use a bit of backup."

The 2022 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Europe event was Nov. 15-16 at the Hilton Rotterdam in the Netherlands.