No Data, No Market

An Interview With The Standardization Expert Madina Shamsuyeva

Ms Shamsuyeva, let us start with a question that would seem obvious at first glance: Is there even a clear definition of what recycled plastics are?

The term recycled plastics has been used in various application-specific DIN and EN standards since 1999. Depending on the area of application, it is used either to describe materials from used plastic products that have been cleaned and shredded (DIN EN 1566) or to describe recyclable plastic materials produced by the recycling of plastic waste (DIN EN ISO 472).

At first glance, this seems simple. But not every cleaned and shredded material is suitable for reprocessing as a secondary raw material. Moreover, the term recycled plastics says nothing about the origin of the material. For the composition and the recycling effort, however, it makes a large difference whether we are talking about waste after use (post-consumer) or material left over from industrial production or waste before use (post-production or pre-consumer). Moreover, according to the current definitions, a plastic product that only contains a proportion of recycled materials is also referred to as such. There actually is no clear definition regarding the minimum proportion of recycled materials.

At the same time, a variety of recycling processes are currently available. In view of the dynamic advance of the circular economy, this number will increase. The best-known processes so far are mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling produces a thermoplastic material that can be directly reprocessed. The current definition fits this process. Chemical recycling, on the other hand, produces monomers or other chemicals in gas, liquid or solid form. Although the products of the two processes are different, they are both referred to as recycled plastics. It is therefore obvious that the definition of the term needs to be updated and better delineated.

The demand for recyclable materials will increase dramatically in the coming years, partly due to government regulations and partly due to changing consumer demand. What role do quality and other standards play in this development?

Quality standards define technical information concerning a given product that the recycler needs to provide to the buyers. Standards therefore help to ensure consistent, reproducible quality. This is the most important factor for the processing of recycled plastics. Binding quality standards could therefore help to simplify and promote the domestic and global commercialization of recycled plastics. In other words: no data, no market. Finally, quality standards promote customer acceptance. This is particularly the case in areas where end customers have direct physical contact with products made from recycled plastics, such as cosmetics or textiles.

Manufacturers of plastic products repeatedly emphasize that they would like to use more recycled plastics if only there were reliable and binding quality standards for the material. They want more certainty that they can actually meet their own customers’ requirements with recycled materials. Is this a valid objection?

The introduction of reliable quality standards would certainly promote the establishment of a value chain for recycled plastics. However, their absence is not the only reason for the sometimes still hesitant uptake in recycling. One example: The standard for the characterization of polystyrene (DIN EN 15342:2007) has been in place since 2008. The recycling process for this material now generates high-quality output material. However, the recycling of polystyrene is comparatively more expensive than polyethylene or polypropylene. Therefore, it has so far only been recycled in very small quantities. This clearly shows that if the production and use of recycled materials is not profitable, (quality) standards will not make a difference.

Why is the information provided by the recycling companies in technical data sheets not sufficient to assess the quality of the recycled plastics that they offer?

Compared to the technical data sheets for virgin materials, the data provided in the data sheets for recycled materials is significantly less plentiful and accurate. Depending on the polymer type and the recycler, the technical data sheets for recycled plastics sometimes only give four properties: Density, Melt Flow Index, melting point and residual moisture. A technical data sheet for a virgin plastic, by contrast, usually contains detailed information on the mechanical, thermal, rheological as well as other application-specific characteristic values, such as electrical properties.

“If the goal is to replace virgin plastics with recycled plastics, the amount and accuracy of the information provided needs to be the same for both types of materials.”

There are already a number of DIN and ISO standards. Which issues do these standards mainly deal with and what do you think is missing the most?

The existing recycling standards, most of which were developed in the early 2000s, represent the very first steps of the plastics industry towards a circular economy. One can divide these into four groups: Characterization of certain polymers (PET, PE, PP, PS etc.), terminology and labelling, recycling of certain plastic products (PVC windows, PET bottles, etc.) as well as sampling and testing.

The first two groups are the most important, as they are used by different actors in the value chain and are currently independent of the past or future application of the recycled material. The structure of the polymer-specific standards specifies required and optional data for the characterization of the given materials.

From a scientific point of view, some of the required data needs to be supplemented by appropriate measurement methods. For example, the color and shape of the material for recycling is a required data point that has to be established more precisely than just by visual inspection. These standards are currently being reviewed and adapted. For example, a draft version of the revised version of the standard for PE is already available. Compared to the previous version, this new one specifies that data on the presence of PP and foreign polymers has to be provided. This is an important step forward. The remaining standards also need to be reviewed and updated.¹

Do you currently see promising approaches to achieving more convincing quality standards? If so, which ones? And who is working on them?

A number of groups are currently working on the development of new and the revision of existing standards. For example, the German Institute for Standardization related to DIN SPEC 91446 and the DIN Standards Committee on Recycling of Plastics in the Circular Economy. In addition to the German Institute for Standardization, various associations also develop recommendations or guidelines for the handling and classification of recycled plastics. Since this area is developing very dynamically, there will probably be a number of different documents on this topic in the near future.

Appropriate standards seem to be an essential prerequisite to get the market for recycled plastics and thus the circular economy going. Who do you think should be the driving force here: the recyclers, the manufacturers, the users or the political sphere?

From a certain point, this will have to, of course, be teamwork. However: Only manufacturers can set the technical information and quality requirements for the recycled plastics that need to be provided to enable them to be processed and used effectively and sustainably in specific applications.

Sources:

[1] Plastverarbeiter (2020). 70 Jahre Plastverarbeiter — Die Jubiläumsausgabe. https://www.plastverarbeiter.de/e-paper/20–06/#0 (accessed on 11.11.2020).

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