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Huge potential for tray-to-tray recycling:PETCORE

  • Market: Petrochemicals
  • 17/06/24

Ahead of the Petcore Europe Thermoforms Conference in Granada, Spain, on 25-26 June, the technical manager of Petcore Europe's thermoforming working group, Jose-Antonio Alarcon, spoke to Argus about the development and challenges of tray-to-tray recycling in Europe.

Why is closing the loop on tray-to-tray packaging important for the European industry?

Most of the PET recycling industry has been concentrated on recycling PET bottles, while tray packaging makes up around 25pc of the overall PET market in Europe. For many years, bottle producers were not keen to use recycled content in their packaging, so most recycled PET flakes were going into tray applications. As regulation continues to push up recycled content in bottles, more and more flakes are going to the bottle market, while trays have not followed the same circularity path and recycled content supply has become more competitive.

Around 70pc of bottles are collected on average in Europe, but the figure is less than 30pc for trays. Only around 50,000 t/yr of trays are currently recycled in Europe, when more than 1mn t/yr are placed on the market. There is huge potential. Petcore Europe has been pushing for tray-to-tray solutions, and in the thermoforming working group we are working on dealing with barriers to making trays circular, looking at collection, recycling technologies, standardisation and design for recycling, food contact and communication.

What are the major obstacles to scaling up tray-to-tray recycling?

One is the collection of trays in most countries in Europe. In some countries, such as Italy, trays are collected together with other packaging types. In others — particularly where there is a deposit return system (DRS) for bottles — then trays are not properly collected. Collection is the first challenge, if you are not collecting, you are not sorting, you are not recycling.

One country that is very successful in tray collection is Belgium. France is working on it and is doing a good job. And Italy is also carrying out trials, but these have been less successful — finding an appropriate outlet for material was a challenge and improvements need to be made to make this work. It is worth mentioning that, Corepla, the EPR system in Italy, has several industrial schemes to improve tray-to-tray recycling with selected recyclers. But the success story in Belgium really stands out.

It is a chicken and egg scenario, why is there not more tray-to-tray recycling? Because it is not collected, sorted, recycled? Or maybe because there is not enough demand? If there is not the demand for inclusion of tray flake, then sorters do not have the critical mass to create a dedicated stream.

The technology is advancing, there are sorting technologies capable of identifying PET bottles, PET mono-layer tray, PET multi-trays and there are recyclers today that are leading the market and recycling both mono and multi-layer trays already. No fewer than seven stakeholders in the value chain need to be convinced that tray-to-tray is the right thing to do and makes sense — both environmentally and economically.

How do you see tray-to-tray recycling developing in the coming years?

Ultimately, the market will determine the value of tray-to-tray recycling. The recycling of trays needs to evolve. Bottle recycling has been in place for more than 20 years, and there is a clear progression from how it looked at the beginning to how the market works today. The tray recycling sector is in its infancy, and it will take time to evolve. It needs to have the right level of interest and demand to progress. At the end of the day if things are not economically viable, they will not progress. The market needs to be self-sustaining.

Some companies are already focused on recycling of multi and mono-layer recycling. And there is a learning curve. If you look at the number of players recycling bottles in Europe and compare it with recyclers of trays, it is very different. But it is growing, and most tray-to-tray projects only started in recent years. There will be more solutions — sorting and washing technology will improve, decontamination technology will improve. We need separate sorting, and the value chain and retailers to be aligned and moving in the right direction.

Progress is slow, but it is necessarily so for the learning curve. At the same time, we need to put pressure on the market to catalyse this movement. Legislation will play a critical role, but the best action is to drive your own fate.

How is regulation supporting the development of tray circularity?

There are particular chapters on trays in Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) in EU regulation 2022/1616 and the Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), but there is no specific legislation dedicated to thermoforming packaging just yet.

In the SUPD, there is mention of on-the-go packaging that can be related to trays, but it covers all packaging types for single use, not specifically PET trays.

Article 6 under EU regulation 2022/1616 mentions the need for separate collection of plastic to be used in food contact applications. This is where we need to work more on the collection and sorting of PET trays and have to push for the trays to be placed in a separate collection stream.

While legalisation undoubtedly underpins demand for recycled content, Petcore aims to go above and beyond the minimum requirements set for the tray market. The thermoforming market needs to be circular and needs to be self-reliant, independent of the regulation imposed.

Will the development of chemical recycling be in competition with tray-to-tray recycling?

The aim of the association is to make the whole PET market circular — my expectation is that in the future there will most probably be some bottle flake going into trays and some tray flake going into bottles. There will also be some claim for chemical recycling, but each sector needs to have its own area, we need to have mechanical and chemical recycling working in harmony.

Recycling of trays is not the same as recycling bottles, mechanical properties and composition of the packaging is different. And trays are more complex than bottles, because they have the tray, lidding film, inks, labels, etc. The percentage of multi-layer material is much higher in trays than in bottles and this makes the recycling process more complex. And design for recycling will help, but there is a place for both mechanical and chemical recycling. We need to look for the most conservate and sustainable recycling route — first this is mechanical, but when this is not possibility chemical recycling makes sense.


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