According to Plastics Europe’s latest report, in 2021, 90 per cent of the world’s plastic production was fossil-based. Post-consumer recycled plastics and bio-based/bio-attributed plastics respectively accounted for 8.3 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the world’s plastic production.
These figures are a reminder that the world has a long way to go if it is to transition to net zero by 2050. For humanity to attain a circular and climate-neutral plastics economy we need accelerated systemic change and increased collaboration between all stakeholders and policy makers.
The world can’t afford to shun this transitional leap – if only to ensure we don’t exceed our carbon budget.
An assessment presented at COP27 put this into perspective. If we are to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees temperature rise, our remaining carbon budget is 380 billion tonnes – equivalent to less than a decade of emissions at our present rate.
We have no option but to reduce our emissions. With that in mind, we need to take the macro view and consistently opt for systemic changes across every facet of our lives that are achievable and, vitally, keep us within a safe carbon range.
Changes in post-consumer packaging management
The European Commission’s latest packaging and packaging waste regulations put forward measures that would bring greenhouse gas emissions from packaging down to 43 million tonnes compared with 66 million if we continue with business as usual. These measures are one of the many transformational steps we need to take as we continue developing innovative technologies to move humanity back from the brink.
In this regulation, PET, which is plastics most resounding success story so far, is within range of these new targets set at 30 per cent recycled content by 2030 moving to 50 per cent by 2050.
Honing in on food-grade plastic packaging
Food contact plastic packaging’s targets, on the other hand, reflect the belief that these are one of the more challenging materials to recycle back into food-grade resins. Now that we have the technologies to achieve this, the 10 per cent target set for 2030, shifting to 40 per cent by 2040, should be achievable and would mean we will be closing the loop on some 400,000 tonnes of food-grade plastic a year.
And we certainly need to boost our production of high-quality, food-grade recycled resins given that roughly 20 per cent of the world’s virgin plastic production is polypropylene (PP).
ICIS Mechanical Recycling Supply Tracker reports that food-grade resins represent only 10 per cent of the global annual capacity of recycled polymers of over 45 million tonnes, of which slightly over 20 per cent is food-grade R-PET compared with just three per cent of food-grade polyolefins.
Mechanically recycling PP also means closing the loop on a valuable material that would be wasted if diverted to other end-of-life solutions with higher carbon footprints, such as waste-to-energy or chemical recycling.
One of the key roadblocks holding back the likes of food-grade PP recycling is the stringent challenges of meeting global industrial recycling standards for food-grade resins, particularly given that many transformational recycling solutions are now coming on-stream.
To achieve high-quality food-grade PP resin requires eliminating all contaminants from post-consumer waste that could be harmful to human health, as well as proving that the recycled material does not change the food composition, taste, and odour in an unacceptable way.
This is something that, until recently, was not achievable, hence our reliance on virgin plastics for food packaging. Now we are entering a new era for recycling ushered in by innovative technology, not only to sort post-consumer packaging, but also to effectively eliminate any potential residues in the recycled plastics.
Yet despite these technological advances, we may still face the huge constraints of big volume polyolefins recycling, precisely at a time when we need to be accelerating the research and technology developments in this direction.
Scientists Roland Franz and Frank Welle, of Fraunhofer VII, recently published a paper on this topic, in which they argue that while EFSA’s obligatory precautionary principle requires a conservative safety assessment, the over-conservatism in the way food safety factors are calculated during the recycling and migration processes might overestimate the safety risks of recycled plastics in packaging applications. They might also overestimate the risks posed to consumers given the improvements in collection, high performance sorting and recycling/decontamination processes.
Both Franz and Welle believe this could pose high, if not insurmountable, barriers to the application of post-consumer recyclates for food packaging; something that risks creating a stranglehold on recycled food-grade resins, especially the polyolefins, and counteracting the circular economy targets.
Reframing the science
A recent study of background contamination of post-consumer Polypropylene (PP) packaging for NEXTLOOPP’s submissions to food safety authorities, USFDA and UK FSA, may change this.
This study is the first recent UK/European study on post-consumer PP packaging to be based on current recycling infrastructure and packaging materials. As such it will update the knowledge base that has been used for other plastics (HDPE and PET) and will shine a new light on the science of risk management and recycling food-grade recycled PP (and potentially other polyolefins).
Using the modern recycling infrastructure and the latest recycling technologies that we now have to reframe the science and basic assumptions that regulatory bodies are reliant on, could be a lifeline for food-grade recycled resins and an added incentive to reduce the production of virgin plastics.
There is no doubt that we all need to ensure that nothing produced slips out of its own loop. In the plastics sector alone the British Plastics Federation estimated that if all plastic were recycled globally this could result in mean annual savings of 30 to 150 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to shutting between eight and 40 coal-fired power plants globally.
Certainly we need to embrace the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation’s goal to put the packaging sector on track for climate neutrality by 2050. This is not a lofty vision – it is an urgent warning to keep the planet’s climate within its liveable limits and avoid life changing scenarios.
Professor Edward Kosior is the founder of NEXTLOOPP, the 47-strong multi-client project aimed at closing the loop on food-grade PP.