Extracting value from plastics waste can be achieved through recycling and energy recovery, helping to save money and meet sustainability objectives.
Mechanical recycling of plastics refers to the processing of plastics waste into secondary raw material or products without significantly changing the chemical structure of the material. In principle, all types of thermoplastics can be mechanically recycled with little or no quality impairment. It is currently the almost sole form of recycling in Europe, representing more than 99% of the recycled quantities.
Waste streams that can easily provide clean plastic of a single type in large quantities are ideal for mechanical recycling and represents a win-win situation from an environmental and economic perspective: environmental benefits from substituting virgin material generally exceed the environmental burden from collection, sorting, transport and recycling operations, while the costs of such operations can be outweighed by potential revenues from selling recyclates on the market.
Plastics and plastics-containing waste that cannot be sustainably mechanically recycled to the required standard from an economic and environmental perspective provides a valuable resource for other recovery solutions such as feedstock recycling and energy recovery to maximise the recovery of its embedded energy and resources.
PlasticsEurope is committed to helping develop quality-focused recycling processes for plastics waste and to promote such solutions in all European countries.
Feedstock recycling (or chemical recycling) means a process changing the chemical structure of plastic waste, converting it into shorter molecules, ready to be used for new chemical reactions.
For instance, processes such as gasification and pyrolysis break down plastic waste to produce synthesis gas (syngas) as well as other liquid and semi-liquid products. In addition, new depolymerisation processes are under development to convert some types of plastics back into monomers for the production of virgin plastics.
Feedstock recycling is a complementary technology, that can help diverting from landfill certain plastic waste which cannot be sustainably recycled by mechanical processes. Examples of suitable streams for feedstock recycling include laminated and composite plastics, low quality mixed plastics streams and contaminated plastics.
The most common example of feedstock recycling in Europe is currently the use of plastic waste in blast furnaces, where plastics are gasified into syngas and replace coke, coal or natural gas to act as a reducing agent to convert iron ore and other oxidised metals into pure metals.
Other technologies are under development but not yet available at an industrial scale.
PlasticsEurope is committed to maintaining its contribution to the further development of feedstock recycling as a valuable supplementary recycling option for plastics waste.
For more information see our technical paper on: Plastics convert iron ore to steel - Feedstock recycling in blast furnaces.
Energy recovery is a valuable alternative for plastics-rich waste fractions that cannot be sustainably recycled. Some plastics cannot
be recycled in an eco-efficient manner because of factors such as:
The amount, cleanliness and composition of the
collected waste streams.
The available technologies for sorting.
Market-driven requirements on quality and standards
for recycled material that may limit the appropriateness of plastics recycling.
For these plastics, energy recovery is the most resource-efficient solution available when compared to landfilling or even to enforced recycling.
Modern combined heat and power recovery plants (CHP Plants) can use waste plastics together with other high calorific input materials. This provides a valuable source of heat and power which can account for up to 10% of some EU countries’ energy needs.
In addition, solid recovered fuel (SRF), which contains plastics as well as other solid waste, is increasingly used by thermal power plants as well as a number of energy intensive industries, for example cement and lime kilns, reducing the need for virgin fossil fuel.
All such energy recovery processes use only the best available technology to ensure they are safe, environmentally-responsible and efficient installations.
PlasticsEurope is committed to maintaining its contribution to the development of efficient energy recovery solutions as a necessary complement to overall plastics waste management strategies.
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