Analysing the environmental performance and improvement factors of plastic packaging recycling systems

Conference Dates

June 5 – 10, 2022


Targets set by the European Union require member states to increase recycling rates of plastic packaging waste (PPW) to at least 50% by 2025. With current recycling rates from Norwegian PPW being around 25%, meeting this target by 2025 will be challenging. The Norwegian system is generally characterized by the lack of national capacity to sort and/or recycle PPW, leading to collected PPW being exported to Germany for further treatment. However, ensuring treatment capacity in Germany has recently become more challenging, raising the question whether Norway should get more involved in recycling its own PPW. This, together with the urgent need to obtain higher recycling rates calls for a systems’ change. This study analyses the performance of the Norwegian PPW recycling system on two indicators: the obtained recycling rate and the environmental impact of the system. The recycling rate is calculated based on a material flow analysis which follows each plastic type through the recycling system. The environmental impact is calculated using life cycle assessment methodology, with a functional unit of one tonne PPW generated by Norwegian households, including avoided burdens when recycled pellets avoid a certain amount of virgin material and energy generated from waste substitute other energy carriers. Combined, both methods give a framework suited for evaluating the critical performance factors for PPW recycling. Changes to the recycling system are categorized in four groups, i.e. focusing on waste collection, sorting, recycling or on the design of plastic packaging. Strategies focusing on waste collection are for example routing residual waste through mechanical sorting facilities instead of, or in addition to, source separation of PPW. Sorting source separated PPW in a state-of-the art facility in Norway instead of Germany is a strategy focusing on the sorting phase, whereas increased regulation related to which plastic types to use in plastic packaging focuses on design for recycling. Together with the relative sensitivity of main parameters, these scenarios give an overview over the most effective measures and their preconditions. The preliminary results show a high impact from the collection phase, since large quantities of PPW are not source separated but follow the residual waste stream to incineration instead. Strategies to increase the amount of PPW recovered from the residual waste steam are therefore considered useful, both regarding the environmental impact and recycling rate. Whether this should be recovered by mechanical sorting facilities, or by more traditional source separation is dependent on the performance of both systems. Strategies focusing on improving the sorting phase are also effective, mainly due to current underutilization of the source separated PPW. Finally, strategies trying to alter the PPW composition are heavily dependent on the design of the overall system. Without an understanding of these dynamics, efforts could remain fruitless. Results from this study show that Norway should take measures at multiple stages of the recycling chain to increase its recycling rate and environmental performance. However, without improvements at the collection phase, other strategies will yield sub-optimal results.

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