Rapid growth in the collection and recycling of flexibles could help partially offset the current shortage of sufficient mechanically recycled material to meet packaging sector demand, particularly for the recycled low-density polyethylene (R-LDPE) chain.
Flexibles, defined as material with a thickness of less than 0.25 millimeters, typically comprise such plastic waste as cling film, lids from ready meals and refuse bags. Postconsumer material is typically sold on a mixed-colored basis, and material reprocessed from it is predominantly used for bin bag production. However, it is the postcommercial sector that could lead to a rapid increase in the availability of material suitable for use in primary packaging applications.
Flexibles now stand as one of the most profitable and attractive parts of the R-LDPE chain for waste collectors and recyclers, where previously material had been largely discarded. This is driving rapid development of the sector.
For R-LDPE this is because flexible material provides one of the few sources of material that can be widely adopted by the packaging sector, where sustainability pressure is most intense.
Outside of flexibles and some small quantities of postindustrial material, R-LDPE suitable for use in primary packaging is predominantly limited to material from France.
This is because across most of Europe, rigid R-LDPE is produced from mixed-colored postconsumer bales, and the natural fragment—limited to around 10 percent of an average bale—is used to produce honeycomb natural pellets (pellets with an amber-tinge) that can only be used in secondary packaging applications. The main end-use for this grade remains nonpackaging applications.
In France, eco-modulation fees introduced by the French government have subsidized the sorting and separation of bales at the point of collection, which previously had been deemed prohibitively expensive. This has led to natural bales being sold in France, which can then be used to produced natural transparent pellets suitable for use in primary packaging applications.
Nevertheless, France has a shortage of sorting and collection capacity compared to the demand coming from the European packaging sector.
Underlying buying interest from the packaging industry has been growing in recent years in light of the ongoing backlash against single-use plastics, mounting consumer and regulatory pressure on packaging firms and rising sustainability targets among fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) producers.
The net result has been that rigid natural bales currently are trading at more than four times the price of mixed colored bales, and rigid natural transparent pellet ex-works NWE (northwest Europe) at more than 200 euros per metric ton above rigid natural honeycomb ex-works NWE pellets.
LDPE is the most widely used plastic in packaging applications globally, and the development of further mechanical recycling volumes that can be reused by the packaging market essential.
Roughly 700,000 to 800,000 metric tons per year of postconsumer rigid LDPE are collected in Europe each year, according to market estimates. If every single metric ton of this material was used in the packaging industry with no waste, this would still only be sufficient to replace approximately 15 percent of European LDPE packaging demand.
However, at least 25 percent of input material is wasted during the recycling process because of contamination on process losses, and this figure can rise to as high as 50 percent. Coupled with this, approximately 10 percent of this is natural material, meaning that even if collection widened significantly beyond France, availability would remain too limited to meet FMCG targets, which are typically for 25 to 50 percent recycled content by 2025.
Although some reprocessers have been producing material from flexibles for a number of years, the current market size stands at less than 100,000 metric tons per year, according to market estimates.
Many local authorities still do not allow flexibles into recycling streams, and many waste managers do not yet have the capability to process this material. Instead, typically flexible material is included in what are colloquially referred to as “MRF” bales, which are bales of mixed plastic material that has been rejected by a municipal recycling facility for reprocessing or sorting and separating.
Nevertheless, separated collection systems are becoming increasingly common, particularly in the U.K., where major supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Tesco have introduced flexible polyethylene and polypropylene collection points within the past two years.
Postcommercial bales are made up of preconsumer waste from the retail industry, which is typically used in the distribution of products to point-of-sale for applications, such as wrapping pallets for transport.
As a result, this material is typically clear and rarely comes into direct contact with the product itself, meaning that it typically does not absorb the scent of the product it’s packaging and contamination is limited to less than 2 percent typically, and it can be used as a feedstock to create near virgin-like mechanically recycled material. (Although, as with all mechanically recycled materials, it does suffer from tensile strength degradation with each cycle.)
Pellets produced from flexible bales typically are broken down into three grades from least to most transparent: natural honeycomb, natural translucent and natural transparent.
The spread between postcommercial natural flexible bales and transparent pellets, which is the most desirable grade from the packaging sector, is currently 950 to 1,050 euros per metric ton on average in Europe. This compares favorably, for producers, with a spread of 700 to 800 euros per metric ton between rigid natural postconsumer bales and rigid natural transparent pellets.
With regulation against single-use plastics continuing to intensify and public pressure at an all-time high, underlying demand from packaging is expected to continue to sharply increase over the next few years.
The bulk of R-LDPE currently produced in Europe is not suitable for use in packaging. Scaling up the collection of flexibles could change that.
Mark Victory is senior editor, recycling, at ICIS.