Environmental company Attero offers sustainable solutions for waste flows from homes, companies and governmental organisations. The company has been recovering and reusing energy and raw materials from waste for ninety years. Together with a variety of chain partners, Attero recently explored the opportunities for high-quality recycling of plastic packaging waste. The partners joined forces in the PRoLiFEx project, which was intended to demonstrate the technical feasibility of a closed plastic film chain. EGEN took care of the grant application for this project, and remained involved in its implementation. The results were presented in the spring of 2022.
Less new film, more recycled film
Up to 30 to 40 percent of household plastic waste consists of various types of plastic film. Because the recycling of plastic film is a highly complex process, almost all new film packaging is made from virgin plastic. Under the auspices of the PRoLiFEx project, a consortium consisting of six chain partners – Attero, TUSTI, TU Eindhoven, Dow Benelux, Oerlemans Packaging and Pokon Naturado – investigated the possibilities for achieving a closed plastic film chain. This should lead to a decreased demand for new plastic film, and thus to a smaller CO2 footprint for film packaging. PRoLiFEx stands for ‘Post-consumer Recycling of L(L)DPE in Flexible Extrusion’. LDPE and LLDPE are the ‘soft’ versions of polyethylene from which the films are made.
From granulate to compost packaging
The success of the PRoLiFEx project shows that a closed plastic film chain is feasible. Attero is the raw material supplier within the chain. Contaminated plastic household waste arrives here and is washed, after which additives supplied by chemical company Dow Benelux are added. The plastic is then processed into plastic granules. Knowledge partners TUSTI and TU Eindhoven are involved in this part of the process to ensure and optimise the quality of the granulate. The next link in the chain is Oerlemans Packaging, which uses the granulate as the raw material for film production. The demonstration project has succeeded in producing a film of the right quality and strength to serve as packaging for Pokon Naturado products, such as compost, potting mix and fertilisers. The first PRoLiFEx compost bag, consisting of no less than 65% recycled material, was presented on National Compost Day on 26 March 2022.
Working towards acceptance
Berry Bellert, plastics expert at Attero, explains that this is not simply a technical process. ‘Naturally, we wanted to remove the technical obstacles first – after all, we need to be able to produce a raw material with the right degree of strength and resistance. That’s mainly a matter of testing and fine-tuning. However, there’s more at stake – specifically, the acceptance of a recycled product as a replacement for a new product. And this acceptance is trickier than you’d think. Marketing appears to have a much greater influence on sales than the purely technical aspects. Smooth, glossy packaging still sells better than packaging that is produced more sustainably, but that looks less polished. And it’s this acceptance – the way of looking at things – that we need to work on.’ To promote a different, more conscious perception of the product, the decision was made to produce the new PRoLiFEx compost bags in a uniform grey colour with white print. This would make it extra clear that the bag is a recycled product, causing the consumer to stop and think for a moment.
Initiator, process controller, impact analyst
EGEN was able to secure a grant for the PRoLiFEx project from the Joint Industry Projects (JIP) scheme, which is part of the Top Sector Energy programme. After that, the EGEN consultants focused mainly on process and information management within the project, and on carrying out environmental and socio-economic impact analyses. They also ensured that the consortium met its performance obligations to the granting body. Berry Bellert: ‘EGEN played the role of initiator, process controller and impact analyst within the project. This enabled us as consortium members to stay on top of things. The great thing was, we didn’t have to worry about the organisational and administrative aspects of the project, because the people at EGEN took care of all that.’
With the knowledge gained during the project, the consortium partners have made significant progress towards achieving a closed plastic film chain. Large-scale production of recycled film will now be within easy reach for the whole industry. ‘Once there is full readiness and acceptance is no longer an obstacle, we will be justified in saying that our demonstration project has been successful,’ says Berry Bellert.