Recycling, Circular Economy

More climate protection through the use of recycled materials

09/04/2024 | 3 min read
Diana Strasser

The following blog post discusses: 

•    Current figures on the recycling of plastic waste in Germany
•    The processing of recycled plastics
•    The impact of recyclate on the carbon footprint of packaging

Plastic Waste Recycling

It is the stuff of nightmares not only for environmentalists and climate activists, but also for a society committed to sustainability: plastic waste that is dumped in landfills and only decays slowly over decades, decomposing and finding its way into the surrounding flora and fauna through wind and weather. In Germany at least, this negative picture is fortunately (almost) a thing of the past: the waste management industry here recycles almost all of the plastic waste collected. 

According to the study “Material flow profile of plastics in Germany 2021,”1 which is carried out every two years by the industry, around 35% of all collected plastic waste was recycled in 2021 – out of almost 5.7 million tons – and 0.4% was recycled as raw materials or chemically. 64% of the waste was recycled for energy. This sounds good at first glance – the heat released during incineration is usually used as district heating or to generate electricity. Yet although waste incineration is subject to exhaust gas limits, pollutants produced during incineration cannot be completely filtered out. The incineration process also releases CO2. From a climate and environmental protection perspective, it is therefore important to recycle more plastic waste. More on this later. 

Increased use of recyclates

In 2021, the plastics industry processed a total of 14 million tons of plastics into new plastics products – a decrease of 1.4% compared to 2019. The quantity of primary plastics processed was just under 11.8 million tons, 4.4% lower than in 2019. In addition, just over 1.6 million tons of recyclates were processed. This means that the use of recyclates increased by 17.4% compared to 2019. The share of recycled plastics in the total amount of plastic processed was 11.7%. Packaging remains the largest area of application for plastics: 31.2% of the plastics processed in Germany were used for this purpose.2

Differences in material recycling

The recycling rate for waste from plastics production and plastics processing was 73% in 2021. 29% of plastic waste from private households was recycled, while 38% of plastic waste from commercial end use was recycled. Plastics in industry are usually very clean and sorted, but in households and many commercial enterprises they are often contaminated and mixed. From an environmental point of view, it makes sense to recycle as much used plastic as possible. As many ecological assessments show, recycling is the most environmentally friendly disposal option. The main areas of use for recycled plastics (1.65 million tons) in new products are construction products and packaging. In 2021, around 69% of the recyclates and by-products used were used in these two areas.3

The carbon footprint and the impact of recyclates

The fact that recycling rates, and thus the amount of recycled material, are increasing is also encouraging from the perspective of the plastics industry. But can the sustainability benefits of recycled material compared to new material also be substantiated by facts and figures? It is worth taking a look at the carbon footprint: this basically indicates the amount of greenhouse gases released by certain actions. CO2e emissions are associated with any activity – whether it’s the production, use, and recycling of various products or if it’s events, travel, overnight stays, or services. This makes the carbon footprint an important tool for assessing climate impact and can also be used to assess packaging.4 Most of the emissions from packaging are generated right at the outset – during plastic production. The production of plastic from crude oil is extremely energy-intensive; if packaging is made from recycled material, these emissions are eliminated. This means that CO2e can be saved massively by reusing resources. To take a concrete example, rPET produces on average almost 70 percent less CO2eq/kg than virgin PET5, as recycling the plastic causes significantly fewer emissions than new production. r-PET is also currently the only widely available, mechanically recycled material that is suitable for use in the food sector due to the strict requirements of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Supporting the circular economy

Every single consumer can also contribute to keeping the carbon footprint of packaging as small as possible through their actions – by keeping plastics in the cycle for a long time, thus allowing them to be used again and again. Careful separation and recycling allows the individual raw materials to be reintroduced into their respective material cycles and processed to a high standard. Emissions can also be reduced by using renewable energies in the recycling process.
However, the reuse of plastic depends on several factors: Is there an appropriate collection stream? Are they monomaterial solutions? What decoration is being used for the packaging? Can the recycled material come into contact with food again? If these questions are taken into account when designing the packaging, there is a higher chance that the packaging will be recycled and the carbon footprint can be lower. 

Plastic - better than its image

In terms of emissions, the choice of recycled material for plastic packaging can often convince even environmentally conscious consumers – and contrary to its sometimes widespread negative image, plastic has other sustainability advantages as the material of choice for many types of packaging: plastic packaging offers very good product protection, thus preventing food waste by extending shelf life. They are unbreakable, can be produced cost-effectively in many variants and are particularly lightweight: this is particularly advantageous for longer transportation routes in terms of CO2e emissions. This is why reusable PET bottles are also preferable to their reusable glass competitors due to their lower weight. Plastic packaging generally stands out for its ease of use for consumers.

In other words, plastic packaging is not bad or good per se: however, it can certainly be a sustainable alternative to other types of packaging when various factors are taken into account. If it remains in the cycle, the proportion of recycled plastic waste can also be further increased in the future. More products can be made from recycled material, resources can be conserved, and emissions can be reduced. 

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