In light of the challenge of the century, i.e. reducing the world’s plastic consumption and better managing packaging end-of-life, recycling solutions have gained popularity: the EU has actually set out ambitious objectives compelling manufacturers to offer packaging 50% made of recycled plastic by 2025. However, as they depend on more or less mature collecting installations, depending on the countries, and on hardly flexible thermo-mechanical recycling technologies, recycling players are struggling to meet demand for plastic in such quantities.
“We are aiming for waste flows that just do not exist. Today, 1 million tonnes of collected plastic per year are missing to reach this goal,” says Martin Stephan, Deputy Managing Director of Carbios, a bioplastics-processing company and a pioneer in chemical recycling based in Clermont-Ferrand, France. “The EU estimates that 4 billion euros need to be invested in Europe to fulfil the 2025 objectives.”
The thermo-mechanical technology involves crushing and melting specific types of plastic, usually the most common types, but not coloured. Today, this process has the advantage of increasing the plastic shelf-life, but there is a huge constraint involving the limited quantity of resource available for a qualitative result that is less satisfactory than the virgin material.
“Mechanical recycling has its own limits, because you cannot recycle the same pack indefinitely: plastic gradually loses its mechanical properties. In addition, many contaminating products cannot be removed,” explains Martin Stephan.
Making new with old
Given the huge challenge rPET (recycled PET) sourcing represents, plastic processing startups and manufacturers have already started working on a new recycling generation based on a PET depolymerisation and repolymerization chemical process. Contrary to the mechanical process, this technology has the tremendous advantage of resulting in a completely virgin resin after the recycling process.
“Starting with 100% waste, this technology can generate a much more interesting volume with the same quality as the virgin material,” explains Gilles Swyngedauw, Innovation and CSR Director of Albéa, who have just signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, thus committing to the circular economy principle.
Brands are now taking action, ordering their own plastic from the future suppliers of this new green gold. Among others, L’Oréal and L’Occitane have signed partnership agreements with Loop Industries, a Canadian pioneer in the chemical recycling technology.
In France, Carbios is currently industrializing a promising solution based on an enzymatic transformation process. “Thanks to an enzyme specific to PET, we break down the molecule chain of plastic. Our process destructures the polymer to get the two original monomers back. Then, we just repolymerize them to obtain a material identical to virgin PET,” explains Martin Stephan. This technology will help petrochemicals specialists produce “virgin” PET, not only based on petrol, but based on waste, including clothes made of polyester and coloured plastics, indefinitely. The first productions should be available in 2023/2024. “It is not reuse, it is really recycling,” he adds.
Speculations and uncertainties
For packaging manufacturers, the first to be confronted with sourcing constraints, the prospect of chemical recycling definitely represents the opportunity for an additional, more qualitative resource. Still, some of them have raised questions about this new model.
In fact, by providing rPET suppliers in the R&D phase with financial support through volume preorders, brands impose a unique choice of supplier to their packaging manufacturer partners in the future.
“This model is quite surprising, because transformers are not part of the process. In the traditional value chain, you have the raw material supplier, who supplies the transformer, who supplies the final customer. Tomorrow, raw materials will be imposed by brands, which is likely to have a strong impact on the whole value chain. Manufacturers will no longer be able to decide what they purchase, and in the event of a manufacturing issue, several players will share responsibility. This type of approach can be dangerous,” says Vincent Joffre, Sales Manager of PRP Création.
For now, these partnership announcements offer brands an obvious media representation, while enhancing competition as regards this much-awaited technology.