In Focus

A wasted resource

Recycling plastics better

A large proportion of plastics waste in Europe is not recycled but instead incinerated for energy generation. Thirty-nine percent of plastics waste is recovered in this way. Another 31 percent goes to landfill, and just 30 percent is recycled. Even in Germany, where the recycling rate for plastics waste is significantly higher at 46 percent, 53 percent is incinerated for energy recovery. Packaging represents the largest proportion of plastics waste in Germany, accounting for 30.5 percent. It is followed by the construction sector (24.5 percent) and the vehicle industry (11.2 percent). We are wasting a resource that could be reused in many ways. How can recycling rates be increased – over the entire life cycle of products – and material cycles closed? The Oeko-Institut is among those researching this issue.

“We need a mix of all sorts of instruments to reduce plastics waste and boost recycling rates,” says Günter Dehoust of the Oeko-Institut. “The first step, of course, is to avoid the consumption of plastics wherever possible.” (For more information see “A world full of plastics” on page 8.) In addition, says Dehoust, policy-makers must ensure that the right framework is in place. The senior researcher calls the new German Packaging Act of 2019 “a minor milestone”. “Its provisions include financial incentives for manufacturers who use recyclate and recyclable packaging,” says the waste management expert. “In addition, the prescribed recycling rates for plastic packaging are increasing from the present figure of 36 percent to 63 percent by 2022.” The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, which forms part of the European Green Deal, is also intended to promote more sustainable resource management. “For example, there are to be rules that reduce packaging and increase the use of recyclate – that is an important step in the right direction,” says Dehoust.

In addition, if the plastics that are produced are to be as widely recyclable as possible, recyclability must be considered right from the start. “The process starts at the product design stage. For example, if packaging is made from a lot of different layers of plastics that are welded together, it is no longer recyclable – or at least not in usable quality,” says Dr Georg Mehlhart of the Oeko-Institut. The Deputy Head of the Resources & Transport Division mentions a number of ways of making packaging easier to recycle: “Different sorts of plastics should be easy to separate from each other, and they should not be heavily dyed or bonded with other materials.” It is also important not to print directly on the plastics. This is why drinks bottles, for example, often incorporate thin films that can be removed easily.


In a project for Werner & Mertz, which manufactures cleaning products, the Oeko-Institut analysed the company’s recyclate initiative. Under this scheme, the company’s Frosch brand products are sold in packaging made of 100-percent recycled plastics, 20 percent of which comes from PET bottles collected in yellow recycling bags. In future the company aims to make greater use of non-PET packaging, such as opaque bottles that are considered hard to recycle. “We assessed the costs and benefits of this initiative and included a comparison with other disposal routes and recycling concepts,” says Günter Dehoust. “Numerous factors play a part here – the costs of initial production and of recycling, the source from which the material comes, and the nature of alternative disposal methods.” In the analysis “Vergleich und Gegenüberstellung verschiedener Recyclingverfahren bezüglich ihrer Aufwendungen und ihrem Nutzen” [Comparison and contrasting of various recycling processes in terms of their costs and benefits] the Oeko-Institut researchers show that making plastics from recyclate instead of from primary raw materials halves the amount of energy needed. “The main reason why using bottles from the Dual System reduces the energy requirement and greenhouse gas emissions is that these bottles were previously incinerated in waste incineration plants or cement works”, explains Dehoust. “The scheme thus has dual benefits: it saves 65 grams of CO2 per bottle because less primary plastics are used, and another 35 grams of CO2 per bottle because emissions from incineration are avoided.” In addition, sophisticated new recycling processes could help achieve the ambitious recycling rates for plastics set out in the Packaging Act. “Ideally there would soon be lots of imitators and supporters who would help companies such as Werner & Merz improve recycling from mixed resources and for high-quality applications.”

But improvements are needed not only at the start of the life cycle of plastic packaging but also at the end, states Georg Mehlhart. “Surveys have shown that the younger generation knows less about sorting waste than older people, and it is also young people who use more single-use plastics,” he says. We need more “rubbish training” – information campaigns for different age groups and people of different cultural backgrounds. It is also important to clarify how the waste is processed and used. “There is often a preconception that everything is probably tipped together and incinerated and that sorted collection is just not worthwhile. But such a sweeping judgement is inaccurate.” And of course it is also incumbent on the waste industry to continue improving its waste sorting and treatment processes. “Even more of the existing facilities must be brought right up to date in order to meet the new recycling targets.”


Plastics recycling also poses challenges that are not immediately visible – such as pollutants in plastics. “Many plastic items contain substances such as softening agents and fire retardants. These are found in products including cars and electronic devices. When the plastics are recycled, these substances are naturally still there in the recyclate,” says Dr Georg Mehlhart. “Many environmental organisations are therefore calling for very strict pollutant limits for both new and recycled plastics.” What is the right way forward here? “We are faced with a dilemma: on the one hand we want to recycle as much as possible, but on the other we want the resulting products to be free of toxic substances.” In the long term, products must of course cease to contain pollutants, but in the meantime the Oeko-Institut researcher supports a gradual and application-related approach coupled with a sense of proportion. “Products must be considered individually. Then – and provided that there are no toxicological risks – it may also make sense to enable time-limited rules on the use of recyclate in closed recycling loops.“


Dr Georg Mehlhart is Deputy Head of the Resources & Transport Division. He assists national and international institutions and enterprises in the implementation of sustainable water and waste management schemes. In his research, Günter Dehoust focuses on sustainable material flows and the circular economy. He advises policy-makers and businesses in these areas.