Europe makes progress on plastic recycling targets but there’s still a way to go


Europe’s recycling rate for plastic packaging hit 34.7% in 2012, according to the European Association of Plastics Recycling & Recovery Organisations (EPRO), with all countries except Malta exceeding the minimum levels of 22.5%. A total of 5.4m tonnes of packaging were recycled and 19 countries exceeded the 30% mark.

The Netherlands is Europe’s most successful plastic packaging recycler, with a 50.6% recycling rate, followed by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden and Estonia.

While it’s certainly good news that progress is being made, there’s still a long way to go in terms of improving Europe’s overall performance. The 2012 rate is just 1.1% ahead of the 2011 rate, highlighting the slow pace of change taking place on the continent.

In 2012, the remaining plastic packaging waste was recovered for energy (34.5%) and disposed of through landfill or incineration without energy recovery (30.8%). Seven countries landfilled more than half of their plastic packaging waste, including the UK, which landfilled 63%.

The recovery rate for plastic packaging, standing at 69.2%, is higher than for other plastic applications by nearly 7%, says EPRO. With plastic packaging representing more than half of all plastic waste, there’s a significant opportunity to boost overall progress by recovering more packaging.

The majority of European countries have plastic packaging recycling and energy recovery targets in place, based on the EU directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste (94/62/EU). Many are putting pressure on producers to cut the amount of packaging used. The UK has a target of 57% of plastic packaging to be recovered or recycled by 2017.

Clearly, the individual countries’ recycling schemes are working to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how rigorously they’re implemented as well as the level of engagement among businesses and communities. Some 63% of post-consumer plastic packaging waste is generated from households, with the remaining 37% produced by business.

Typically, European countries are collecting rigid plastic packaging for recycling, with some parts of Austria and the UK collecting all plastic packaging. Some countries (Germany, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) also have clearly defined deposit systems for recycling plastic drinks bottles.

The issue of how to sort, recycle and recover mixed streams of plastic packaging is still a steep challenge.

“Progress on plastic packaging recycling depends on both the success of government initiatives and the ability of the recycling industry to grow and innovate,” says Nigel Hunton, CEO, MBA Polymers. “Investment in the European recycling industry will be crucial to improving performance and making faster progress on recycling targets.”