Is It sensible to recycle mixed household plastics?

In most jurisdictions in Europe and North America, the only plastic packaging collected from households for recycling is bottles, with other plastic packaging (rigid pots and films) being collected with residual waste.  Belgium collects only bottles and has achieves high rates and good quality recyclate. 

But the prospect of higher recycling targets, combined with political pressure to recycle more means that European recovery organisations are considering expanding the scope of collection to include rigids (pots, tubs and trays) and films. 

Similarly in North America, environmental policy makers are considering whether and how to expand the scope of collection - Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality has just commissioned a study to assess how and whether collection should expand beyond bottles (which are collected through a mandatory deposit or at the kerbside).

But doubts are being expressed about whether the collection of mixed plastics is a good idea, both from the economic and environmental perspective:

1.  Ontario

A study analysing the potential for collecting flexible films concludes that polyethylene films should be collected separately from laminates and other films because no suitable sorting technologies for mixed films are available now or likely to be available in the near future.  Nor is it feasible to sort films manually, although such materials could be recovered as energy.

Collecting mixed films at the kerbside would greatly increase cost, so only one stream (either PE or laminates/non-PE films) should be collected at kerbside to keep costs moderate, the study says.

Collecting films at commercial return centres is cheapest where the materials can be transported free of charge to central baling centres.  If transport has to be funded then it is cheaper to collect the materials at the kerbside, it says.

The report also notes that "from a general lifecycle assessment perspective, flexible film packaging is a highly-efficient form of packaging - even when it cannot to be recycled, it typically results in less global warming potential, energy use and quantity landfilled than recyclable rigid package alternatives."

2.  France

Eco-Emballages has reported that preliminary results of a mixed plastics pilot launched in 2010 are not very encouraging.  The tonnages recycled are lower than forecast, with only an additional 10% recycled.

The three-year pilot involves 51 local authorities, 32 MRFs and 3.7 million consumers.  Most of the local authorities are collecting all types of plastic, but 6 are not collecting films in order to test the potential of collecting a more limited range of mixed plastic.

It has found that materials can be collected without significant difficulties (only a minor increase in time and travel distance) and after a while residents understand the new collection arrangements.

However, sorting poses significant problems and the average cost of sorting is very high.  Sorting infrastructure will require a significant upgrade, with environmental agency Adelphe estimating the necessary investments at EUR 200 - 900 million between now and 2020.

The recyclate from the pilot has been sold but the income does not cover the cost of sorting and Eco-Emballage says markets for certain fractions are still "fragile".

Eco-Emballages is also working with producers to improve the design of packaging and use of polymers to facilitiate sorting and recycling.  However it concludes that 25% - 30% of materials will be unrecyclable and that other recovery methods will have to be used. It is launching a new trial to identify innovative recycling and recovery techniques.







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