Potential for complementary plastic recycling technologies

plastic recycling

PET plastics and polyester textiles are used every day but only one quarter of this material is being successfully recycled.

The scale-up of chemical recycling alongside existing mechanical recycling approaches has the potential for positive environmental benefits as well as transformative success for the wider PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and polyester industry.

If implemented, this combination of plastic recycling approaches could achieve very high recycling rates and lower carbon emissions from the PET packaging and textiles system, according to a new study by Systemiq.

The study explores the evidence for the positive role of PET/polyester recycling via depolymerisation alongside mechanical recycling and reuse in a circular economy for packaging and textiles.

Titled Circularity of PET/polyester packaging and textiles in Europe – Synthesis of published research, the study is the first in a series exploring circularity pathways for PET/polyester.

Drawing on insights from 80+ published reports, research, and advice from industry experts, the study comes at a critical time when government policies and voluntary corporate commitments are set to increase demand for recycled PET/polyester across Europe and the United States.

The series of studies seek to determine whether this system vision is realistic, achievable, and beneficial in terms of economic and environmental outcomes, and whether it would create an opportunity to reduce plastic waste, reduce dependence on fossil-fuel-based feedstocks, increase resource efficiency, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

This first study was created with strategic guidance from an independent Steering Group comprising of experts from the public sector, academia, civil society, and industry. It highlights three main research findings:

Today’s PET/polyester system in Europe is mostly not circular today, and is predominantly dependent on virgin production using fossil-fuel-based feedstocks.

Chemical recycling technologies for PET/polyester can increase circularity by complementing mechanical recycling and upcycling hard-to-recycle plastic waste into high-quality recycled PET/polyester.

The complementary application of mechanical recycling, chemical recycling and reuse in the PET/polyester system has the potential to optimise environmental and socio-economic benefits.

Ben Dixon, partner and head of materials and circular economy at Systemiq, said: “Mechanical recycling of PET plastic bottles is a great success story in some parts of Europe. Despite this fact, the study shows that we are still dealing with high volumes of waste from PET packaging and polyester textiles across our continent.

Research suggests that PET/polyester may be particularly well-suited to complementary solutions, with chemical recycling playing a significant role alongside mechanical recycling and reuse.”

Professor Kim Ragaert, full professor chair of circular plastics at Maastricht University, said: “Bottle PET has long been king of mechanical recycling, due to its unique combination of advantages. However, PET trays and polyester fibre are more complicated and of different qualities, and the conventional bottle segment is increasingly used in non-food applications like cosmetics. We must therefore seriously consider how to complement the mechanical recycling of PET with other technologies to avoid large volumes of precious polymer cascading out of the system via a “last stop” recycling into non-recovered textiles or incineration. This report gives us a much-needed overview of the tools available to us.”

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