Sustainable Materials Five golden rules for using recycled materials

From MA Alexander Stark

Switzerland — Plastics processors are facing fierce competition for sufficient quantities of high-quality recycled materials. It’s not just procurement that’s a challenge for manufacturers; processing the recycled material also calls for in-depth expertise. For the application to be successful, plastics processors should observe the following five golden rules.

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Rule 1: Secure the best sources.

In the European Union, almost 23 percent of plastic packaging must be recyclable, according to the EU's Circular Economy Action Plan. By 2030, the quota will be raised to 55 percent — more than twice as high. Thus plastic producers must now step up their game and use more recyclates. The problem: There’s often not enough high-quality recycled material available due to decentralised market structures. This causes shortages of raw materials and price fluctuations. Processors should be very familiar with the recyclate market so that they can still find the right supply partner. In fact, they would have to carefully examine potential suppliers or even conduct extensive audits to ensure that the raw materials are actually processed in the desired quality and quantity. This approach is especially costly for small and medium-sized enterprises. The research isn’t just time-consuming — it also requires technical knowledge about the production of recycled materials.

That’s why it’s advisable to work with a distribution partner who specializes in the procurement of prime and recycled material. Plastics distributors like have access to a worldwide logistics and distribution network.

Rule 2: Pay attention to material properties.

When you’re processing secondary material, you need to make sure that the recyclates have a similar quality to the prime material that was used previously. For industrial mass production, it’s also important that the quality remains the same. However, because recyclates naturally differ from one another depending on their origin, different batches are homogenized. This means: They’re mixed so that large quantities of consistent quality are produced. “Precise testing and initial sampling are essential because recyclates from different origins are not comparable in terms of their properties,” explains Marc Stachura, Director of Product Management at the plastics distributor Meraxis. This initial testing is a technical process for material characterisation that precisely evaluates whether recyclates are suitable for the intended use.

Rule 3: Develop the right formulation.

Every material development starts with the most detailed definition possible of the desired technical properties. The proportions of recyclates, primeware and other ingredients must be matched to each other in line with the application. This needs to be done because the requirements for the product differ depending on the application. Additives can be added as needed to improve the properties.

Rule 4: Select the appropriate production processes and machines.

It’s also important to match process technologies, tools and the right materials. The parameters on the machines — such as material throughputs, cycle times or processing temperatures — must be set individually for each material to prevent faulty production. This is especially true when recycled materials are used: Processors should use the most homogeneous raw material mass possible in production, so that it stays constant throughout the production process. Ideally, this means that only one basic adjustment needs to be made to the machine.

Rule 5: Demonstrate sustainability.

The interest in products that are as environmentally friendly as possible is enormous, especially among consumers. “The use of recycled materials has long been an additional sales and marketing argument,” says Stachura. “That's why it may be advisable to indicate on the end product that recyclates were used. Recognised certificates such as Eucert Plast are suitable for this purpose.” Eucert Plast is an EU-wide certification program that focuses on the traceability of plastic materials throughout the recycling process and supply chain.

“Even though the use of recycled material has to be well thought out and requires comprehensive process engineering know-how, it’s worth it,” sums up Philipp Endres, Deputy CEO of Meraxis. “After all, this brings the plastics industry a big step closer to a closed-loop economy. That’s why we’re consistently working on enhancing conventional materials with recycling innovations.”

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