Quality assessment and estimation of substitution ratios for recycled plastic

Conference Dates

June 5-10, 2016


Owing to its versatility and specific properties, plastic has become an important material in the modern consumption-based society. Consequently, the global production of plastic has grown constantly throughout the last 50 years, and so has the generation of plastic waste. The political interest in plastic recycling has therefore increased over the last decades. While increasing separate collection of plastic has been the main focus so far, other parameters might significantly influence the environmental impact from a plastic recycling system. Using life cycle assessment (LCA) for environmental evaluation, system expansion is usually used to credit the secondary material, by subtracting the environmental impacts related to the production of virgin material which is substituted with recycled material. The amount of substitution is computed using a coefficient called substitution ratio (SR). Despite the fact that accounting for material quality is important for correct assessment, loss of quality has seldom been integrated in the SR in previous LCA studies, and no consensus presently exists with regards to how to account for it. The overall purpose of this study is to contribute to a more systematic assessment of resource quality and plastic recycling. The work involves preliminary results for selected plastic types in a European context.

A primary assumption is that the more advanced applications a recycled plastic sample can be used for, the higher the quality of the sample. Identifying potential uses of the recycled plastic from a legal perspective was included as a first step. Eight commodity groups, with different legal requirements to the chemical composition of the plastic, were identified, including: 1) food packaging (FP), 2) toys (T), 3) pharmaceuticals (PH), 4) electrical and electronics (EE), 5) building and construction (BC), 6) non-food packaging (NFP), 7) automotive (AU) and 8) others (OT). The most comprehensive legislation is related to use in FP and T. Only medium level of legislation is related to use within PH, EE and BC, whereas no legislation addresses the use within NFP, AU and OT. The next step was to identify the importance of the commodity groups, where recycling was found legally possible. This was done by identifying market shares of the commodity groups on the European market for the five polymer types. It was found that FP and NFP represented significant parts of the market for all polymer types. Thus, use of the recycled plastic within these commodity groups is important. The next step was to address industry behavior in relation to use of recycled plastic. Several parameters were identified within this step as important for the quality and applicability of recycled plastic. Based on the information obtained in the aforementioned steps, a simple framework for estimating potential plastic SRs was defined.

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