PLA packaging must be collected separately to avoid cross contamination of European PET stream, Petcore says

BRUSSELS , December 31, 2008 (press release) – For many years PET has had a very good record as a growth material. The drivers of this growth have been its inherent safety and convenience for consumers. PET has a unique position in the packaging of carbonated soft drinks and mineral waters, with its characteristic toughness, light weight and energy saving, particularly during transport. In addition, PET’s recyclability has led to its growth in European collection from 25 thousand tonnes in 1993 to 1.3 million tonnes in 2007.

With the growth of the use of packaging in general, the issue of European packaging waste has become more visible. PET and other packaging materials are covered by the Packaging & Packaging Waste Directive (P&PW) which first became law in 1994. It has since been modified in 2004 and the latest proposals will be covered in the revision of the Waste Framework Directive. At the moment this revision is considering mandating 50% recycle or reuse of plastics from household streams to be achieved by 2020.

As PET is used predominantly in household packaging it will need to make a major contribution to meeting these targets.

Along with increased targets for packaging recovery comes a requirement for more stringent recovery/recycling standards leading to purer feedstocks. Within recovery we have recyclable and non recyclable outlets. The preferred route for recovery is into recyclable products. To ensure sustainable recovery we need to maintain a very high quality RPET stream. This will ensure the continued growth in recycling. The alternative is to force recovered material into non recyclable routes.

Each European country has different collection, sorting and recycle systems but they all specify the collection of packaging materials that can be separated into single material streams, have a high market value and are available in large enough quantities to give economies of scale. The sorting and recycle plants have invested in modern automatic separation machinery. These expensive machines are fully utilised and tuned to deal with the expected feedstock. The introduction of a container made from a completely new material would compromise the recycle industry in every single country as it would not be compatible with the existing collection, sorting and recycle infrastructure.

In the case of contaminating materials, where there is a proven, direct effect on the recycle stream it is clear that these materials must develop separate collection systems.

Work commissioned by Petcore from PTI-Europe* has demonstrated that PLA will directly affect the recyclability and hence recoverability of a pure PET stream. This will have an impact on (a) the cost of separation and (b) the ability of European countries to meet the future targets under the Waste Framework Directive. One PLA bottle in 1000 PET bottles was found to render the resulting RPET unsuitable for sheet and container applications.

Currently the PLA industry cannot guarantee that bottles made from their polymer won’t contaminate the PET recycle stream.

Petcore believes that PLA as an individual material must be collected in a separate, high quality, recycle stream. This will help compliance with the regulations and avoid cross contamination of the PET stream, removing the threat to PET’s existing recycle infrastructure. Additionally there will be a benefit for those who wish to recycle PLA.

Each EU country is bound by law to reach the P&PW recovery targets in their given timeline. The success of recycling depends on a range of financing methods. The most successful PET recycling countries have mandated financial schemes to subsidise collection and recycling. In a recent case in Italy the proposed introduction of PLA into the recycle stream threatens to increase separation costs. It is uncertain whether the existing separation technology is capable of removing PLA to below 0.1% and every bale will have to be inspected by the National Collection Agency. In addition they will be responsible for the storage of the separated PLA until a market is developed for it. The introduction of PLA is likely to be detrimental to the financial balance of the Italian recovery system.

Petcore will always support innovation in PET product development and in PET recycling. Petcore is committed to the sustainability of PET recycling but recognises the rightful place of other packaging materials.

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