What was the impetus for PCEP to develop this enhanced technical data sheet?
One of the biggest barriers for transitioning to a new circular plastics economy is for industry to accept a new plastic raw material. You could argue, that this is because it needs to move out of its historic comfort zone of only using virgin material, towards using post-industrial or post-consumer recycled source material. It has to use what is essentially perceived as a dirty, difficult material, one that has to go through an extensive recycling process, being sorted and homogenised with its own plastic type to achieve the highest degree of purity, coupled with the highest degree of data validation to substantiate it.
It’s human nature to be resistant to working with a new material. Why do that when what you already have works very well? The aim of PCEP’s new enhanced technical data sheet is to boost confidence in – and so acceptance of – the use of recycled polyolefins in new products throughout the value chain.
From an intellectual point of view, everyone knows this is the right thing to do. The industry has globally produced 367M tonnes of virgin plastics in 2020, and the volume is anticipated to increase, perhaps even exponentially. Plastic risks becoming a ‘shamed material’ because of the pollution associated with it. But plastic is, in fact, a multi-functional material, essentially circular, especially if we can create a comfort zone around designing for disassembly and recyclability, and if we create a comfort zone around the use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) material.
The challenge with PCR is that we as recyclers have to be ‘chemistry detectives’. We have to understand our input materials in order to provide a technical data set that communicates the product we’re producing. What’s the input source? Is it a consistent input source in terms of its availability and the output quality relating to it? What is our recycling process? All of these components we note are concerns from brand owners and converters, who want to produce products using Green Plastics.
We want to turn the plastics industry, as well as the plastic recycling sector into a clean-tech industry, where documentation, transparency and accountability are natural components of responsible production as outlined in SDG12. The work by PCEP to produce the new enhanced technical data sheet has primarily been to try to answer as many of these questions as possible. Our aim is for recyclers to be able to have a detailed conversation with brand owners and converters around the viability of recycled polyolefins, demonstrating that there is statistically validated data behind the technical data sheet.
What is new in the enhanced technical data sheet?
In a nutshell, we have linked the technical data sheet to ISO standards, as well as adding more technical data components that weren’t there before. Now, it requires information such as the origins of the end-of-use polymers; the steps taken in the recycling process (such as shredding, washing, density separation); what types of process the recycled polyolefin is most suited for (eg. injection moulding). And then also how the material conforms to the standards and regulations such as reach and RoHS and recycling standards. This is all brand new.
I would also add that what we have tried to create is a foundation for a dialogue around alignment of expectations, which also did not exist up to now. It is up to the individual recycler how much they would like to fulfil the requirements, enter the data, or even have the capability to put in the data. But what I would say is that working with this enhanced technical data sheet is like giving a “product promise” when talking about a PCR, because the first question any buyer will ask is: “if I buy this material today, will it be the same as what I’ll buy tomorrow because you have a variable input?”
Their second question is: “Does this variable input have the consistency that I can live with as a brand owner and a converter in an application?” And finally, they’ll want to know you can prove whatever you are claiming about your material.
I believe this enhanced technical data sheet will have a tremendous impact on the transition of the recycling community to becoming a clean-tech industry, working alongside the virgin industry, providing a true, validated and consistently high-quality plastic raw material for the circular new plastics economy. It will also help meet the many transformation strategies that the world needs to achieve the sustainability targets outlined in the European Green Deal, in the UN’s Sustainability Goals, and plastic strategies all around the world. Even moreover the crucial CO2 emission savings linked to using PCR.
What opportunity does the enhanced technical data sheet offer to enlarge the market for recycled plastic?
This is a massive opportunity to enhance the brand values for brand owners, their products and their applications. It’s a game-changer for our industry. For me, personally, this is a totally new situation. Normally, when I’m talking to potential customers, I expect to get the question “what can you do for me?” But now we’re moving into a completely different world. Today, in reply to that question, I would turn it around and say: “Ask not what recycled plastics can do for you; rather, ask what you can do to integrate post-consumer recycled plastics into your applications.”
Does the new enhanced technical data sheet cover all forms of plastic as well as all methods of recycling?
It is currently a framework for Polypropylene (PP) and High-density Polyethylene (HDPE), the family of plastics which are polyolefins. But I can envisage it becoming a prerequisite for any recycled material: being able to provide substantiated data that holds you to a quality norm as a supplier of PCR material, or any recycled material.
Could this new data sheet potentially be written into legislation, such as a European standard for the quality of recycled plastic?
For now, the aim is to create a framework for a standard that will be helpful for the polyolefin industry to transform into a circular one. On the one hand, consumers of plastic will no longer have any excuses for not using recycled source materials. At the same time, recyclers will be required to provide substantiated and statistically valid data to back up their material.
How important is PCEP’s role?
I think PCEP is playing a vital role in pushing an industry that has historically not been willing to accelerate this transition up to now. PCEP is forcing the industry to go beyond talking about targets and intentions – and transforming these into concrete actions. It is a convener, gathering all parts of the polyolefin value chain around the same table to overcome the challenges and barriers of circularity.
I think the recycling sector already knows this is a vital issue. But there’s nothing more valuable than bringing all the stakeholders in the value chain together, enabling us all to get a better understanding of different perceptions, of fears and concerns, of obstacles, of perceived challenges that need to be overcome and why.
What’s more, it also fulfils UN Sustainability Goal 17, which requires “inclusive partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre”. And for this very, very important transformation to a circular economy, we are very much behind schedule. We need to speed up the transformation of the polyolefin industry, in particular through the use of PCR polyolefins.
What are the next steps in the process?
We’ll be looking to receive feedback from the polyolefin value chain. There may be components that we haven’t foreseen, there might also be components that would be valuable to include. And once we’ve captured some of this feedback, there will probably be another round of assessment, whether or not to incorporate elements of that feedback. But the next big step is implementation – either in standards, or simply that industry accepts this is the way it wants to go from here on.
I can also potentially see the technical datasheet being adapted for major applications such as for packaging, or automotive, or even adapted for specific polyolefins. This would be very valuable, because there might be minor variances which need to be added in, depending on the industry sectors’ historical requirements, versus how it’s going to be in the future.
Any final thoughts?
I believe recycled polyolefins will be a key part of future brand narratives. They contribute to a variety of climate goals: avoiding plastic waste harming the air (during incineration), avoiding plastic waste harming our land-based environment (through landfill), avoiding plastic waste harming the oceans, seas and waterways (by being lost or dumped at sea), as well as avoiding the loss of valuable natural resources and reducing CO2 emissions.
And of course, the use of post-consumer recyclates also avoids unnecessary manufacturing of virgin plastics – and they definitely help fulfil the United Nations SDGs. It’s a great brand narrative – and one that we need to focus on now – transitioning towards a responsible way of producing and consuming plastic.
Find the enhanced technical datasheet here.
PLASTIX is an award-winning clean-tech manufacturer of ‘Green Plastics’, based in Lemvig on the west coast of Denmark. PLASTIX mechanically recycles post-use maritime fibres, fishing nets and ropes into high-quality raw plastic materials, so eradicating plastic pollution by enabling circular solutions for cleaner environments and oceans.
PLASTIX is a member of the Polyolefin Circular Economy Platform (PCEP) and its CEO Hans Axel Kristensen is a member of PCEP’s Innovating for a Circular Economy Working Group, which produced the Enhanced Technical Data Sheet for recycled polyolefins.