Klaus Wohnig is the CEO of APK AG, an innovative plastic recycling company that focuses on high-quality recycling of flexible multilayer packaging waste. Klaus and his team are actively involved in the work being done by the Circular Plastics Alliance.

The growing pressure being placed on the plastics and packaging industries by the European Commission, NGOs, and consumers will lead to long-overdue changes in how plastic packaging is produced and recycled. It is high time for us to wake up and become more circular, and yet, current approaches are too one-sided to be able to create a truly sustainable and long-term path forward for plastics packaging.

Re-design – coming semi-circle

The pressure to change has resulted in a strong focus on rethinking the design of plastic products – to make them more reusable and more recyclable. Of course, this is a valid approach, but the underlying debate on ‘what is recyclable’ was not sufficiently resolved before the first major initiatives tried to complete this line of thinking with their initial results. Re-designing plastic products will be a valid approach for some types of packaging. It will also lead to negative results for others.

So, where would re-design of plastic packaging be sustainable? Which criteria will we consider? Or, are we just supposed to use ‘mono-only’ design and potentially compromise the performance and resource efficiency of plastic packaging? Is recyclability trumping other criteria, such as performance? Especially in the food packaging sector, this could create a food waste disaster.

Two years after launching the EU Plastics Strategy and in the same year as the publication of the Green Deal, this is exactly the right time to take a look at our achievements so far and to realize that they will only bring us ‘semi-circle’ to a circular economy.

Innovation in recycling technology – coming full circle

The second aspect that is put on the backburner in most current discussions on plastic packaging and recycling, but which is highly relevant as the missing and complementary link to re-designing certain products, is innovation in recycling technology. A comprehensive overview of technological innovation is badly needed. Design guidelines are set against the average status quo of mechanical recycling. But why take today’s technological average as the guiding principle for future recyclability? Should we not have an overview of established and innovative recycling processes? Should we not – based on harmonized definitions – understand the relevance of these technologies both today and in the short- and mid-term in order to know:

  • what is recyclable packaging?
  • what level of quality can be produced with which technology?
  • which of these recyclates can be used in a particular product segment?
  • what volume of recyclates (of which quality) will be available on an EU secondary raw materials market?
  • which investments into a resilient future recycling infrastructure make sense?

So, here is the good news – from a recycling point of view, multi-layer flexible plastic packaging does not need to be declared dead just yet!

When assessing innovative recycling technologies, it quickly becomes apparent that there are advanced physical processes – building on existing mechanical practices – that can handle mixed flexible plastics packaging waste and that can separate the different layers of polymers from each other in the recycling process to produce close to virgin quality recyclates. And no – this does not refer to chemical recycling approaches, but to physical approaches, such as dissolution recycling (in which the molecular chain of the polymer stays intact). Dissolution recycling is currently already available at industrial scale.

A clear distinction of the categories physical recycling (e.g. mechanical recycling/dissolution recycling) and chemical recycling (e.g. solvolysis) and an assessment of the corresponding technologies involved is a must for our work on circularity in plastic packaging.  

Where do we go from here?  

Right now, we need to extend our approach from ‘re-design only’ to ‘innovation in design & recycling technology’. Both aspects are intertwined, and we therefore cannot afford to deal first with A, and only then move on to B, as this will lead to incomplete and distorted conclusions. The spring 2020 European Academies Scientific Advisory Council (EASAC) report on plastic packaging and recyclability also suggests a twofold approach, comprising re-design and a focus on advanced technological processes.

Let’s get straight on the basics and then move forward to upcycling.