The first half of 2015 saw UK recyclers hit hard by the effects of falling virgin polymer prices, with two big players going into administration. At the same time, some converters and packaging end-users were criticised for apparently reneging on agreements to maintain – or even increase – recycled content in their packaging.
European recyclers shared many of the same challenges, said Linpac director of innovation Alan Davey. He explained that many recyclers were committed to unfavourable long-term local government collection contracts at one end, while being at the mercy of volatile market pricing at the other.
“I think recyclers had got the hang of this by the end of 2015, and are no longer locking themselves into unattractive buying contracts,” he said, arguing that a framework could be created where recycled content will always maintain price parity with virgin.
Linpac has invested in its own supercleaning technology to ensure that all incoming recycled PET (rPET) flake is of food-grade quality. It only supplies trays with a minimum rPET content of 50%, although in a clear PET tray this proportion can reach 98%. “Anything that’s predicated on a supply of recycled content will meet with trouble at some point, so if you claim ‘100%’, you’re never going to be completely sure you’ll be able to achieve it,” said Davey.
Many European tray converters still use a co-extrusion technique to sandwich rPET between two virgin PET layers, thus avoiding any food-contact issues. But Linpac’s experience suggests this limits recycled content to around 60%. Many more manufacturers were considering moving to accredited superclean processes in order to increase that proportion, said Davey.
Subject to long approvals
Like other recycling processes, Linpac’s supercleaning technique has been subject to a long approvals procedure carried out by the EU’s European Food Safety Authority. Linpac said it was expecting European Commission (EC) approval early in 2016.
The EC’s recent proposals on the circular economy underlined the importance of food-grade recycling, said Davey. “Bottle recycling is no longer enough to meet the new plastics recycling targets,” he added.
Among Linpac’s most successful projects has been the Elite rPET tray. This replaces the traditional laminated PE component on the upper edge of the tray with a washable sealant on the flange.
“Recyclers don’t want the PE content,” said Davey. “Infrared sorting may identify the PE rather than the PET and, if it does get into the PET stream, it can make the recyclate cloudy.”