Fraunhofer – How do bio-based plastics perform in established recycling systems?

GERMANY • Bio-based products, especially package material, are increasingly found in shop shelves and thus more often end in the waste stream. This poses a challenge to our recycling systems. Many waste management companies fear that bio-based plastics disrupt the established recycling processes.

The number and variety of products made from bio-based plastics are continuously increasing, in particular in the field of packaging. The market forecasts are extremely positive as well. Bio-based plastics are going to be a relevant component in our economic system in the future. Although recycling of bio-based packages is not yet commercially feasible due to low volumes, it is important to explore recycling technologies in order to meet future recycling requirements.

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Therefore the , the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) has supported a joint venture with eight partners from science and industry between 2014 and 2017, who worked on “Sustainable recycling strategies for products and wastes from bio-based plastics”.

Material flows in the PLA-cycle (Source: Fraunhofer)

The main objective of the research was the development of strategies for material recycling of industrial and post-consumer waste. The influence of bio-based packages in the established plastic recycling system was investigated. In this context, the focus was on recycling options for the bio-based plastic polylactide (PLA). PLA is one of the bio-based plastics with novel chemical structures and is often used in the packaging sector. However, the waste management industry repeatedly expressed concerns that PLA could disturb the established plastic recycling processes.

The research partners proved in an extensive work that there are various options for PLA recycling. The most important research results are listed by the research partners in a results summary titled “PLA in waste stream”. This paper constitutes a basis how to manage PLA waste in the established recycling streams. On 1 January 2019, the amended German Packaging Act will take effect. Among others the act aims to increase the use of packaging made from renewable raw materials. Therewith the results and recommendations of the joint project have been published at the right time.

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