Recycled Content Reconnaissance with ReCon2 : The Missing Link in Plastics Circularity

ReCon2 Ltd is working with On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) Ltd and a consortium of sponsors across the plastics sector to develop a technology that identifies, quantifies and validates recycled content in plastics.

The importance of measuring the level of recycled content in plastic polymers

Pollution resulting from plastic mismanagement is a major threat to our planet’s natural environments and our way of life. The EU plastic recycling rate sits at a subpar 34.6%, with the majority being used only once and then landfilled, littered, or incinerated. An even smaller fraction of recycled plastic sits within closed-loop frameworks for conversion back to use for similar-quality applications.

In order to make the plastics value chain truly circular, it’s crucial that the industry is able to measure the level of recycled content in plastics and packaging accurately and efficiently. The incorporation of recycled plastic, also known as post-consumer resin (PCR), into products is one of the most effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with production, for example, by adding 30% PCR in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) packaging.

In response to rising environmental and socioeconomic pressures, governing bodies in the EU and UK are setting targets through new legislation to promote increased recycling. The first of these came out in April this year when the UK introduced a tax (£200/tonne) on plastic packaging containing less than 30% PCR content.  A similar EU Plastic Packaging Levy will come into force soon, at an even steeper cost (€800/tonne).

At present there is a distinct lack of reliable analytical approaches to verify the recycled content of plastic products and waste, meaning these ambitious legislations largely rely on honesty in product formulations that have a longstanding lack of transparency. Many are concerned this will lead to further greenwashing and, at worst, fraud.

Inherent drawbacks of historical methods to measure recycle content

The ‘mass balance’ approach has historically been used to track the movement of recyclate feedstocks in and out of production facilities and across supply chains and remains by far the most common method. Mass balance is an indirect method to track material flows through the production system, rather than a quantitative means of measuring PCR content in a specific item of packaging.

There is dissatisfaction with the mass balance approach for plastics by many in the industry and in government. This is because, while it may show that a company has acquired or produced and used auditable amounts of recycled materials, it does not show how (or even if) the recyclate is used. Mass balance is also very onerous, is paperwork heavy and financially taxing, requiring significant effort at each step in a supply chain.

Alternative methods for PCR content quantification are inconsistent when applied to different plastic types or processing histories. Plastic polymer characteristics before and after recycling are heavily influenced by processing conditions (e.g. temperature) and the additives used to mitigate property loss. Reliable comparisons of pre-and post-recycled polymer molecular weight values would require a standardisation of polymer feedstock, processing conditions, additive formulations and equipment across the industry. However, with a packaging sector dominated by trade-secret recipes and little transparency, the standardisation of (re)processing remains impractical, and a process-independent PCR quantification method is needed.

ReCon2 : How does it work?

In simple terms, ReCon2’s innovation makes use of a molecule – a kind of marker – that exhibits a unique fluorescent response when placed under UV light. It is easily added in minute concentrations into a plastic recyclate stream during compounding.

When this recyclate is blended with virgin plastic ReCon2 can rapidly measure a change in the molecular nature during this dilution, giving us a quantifiable analytical measure from 10-100% of recycled content. ReCon2 has now demonstrated at lab scale the ability to quantitatively determine the recycled content of marked batches of three of the most widely used packaging plastics (high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP) and PET), together encompassing 40% of total EU plastic use.

Recon2_dumbbells

ReCon2’s marker is suitable for application in industrial recycling facilities because its fluorescence signal is independent of plastic processing conditions, and the sample size is unaffected by additives and pigments and negligibly impacts the thermo-mechanical properties of the marked plastics. The marker has already been assessed as safe by the FDA and REACH as well as used in food contact applications.

Developing a robust technology that avoids laborious effort and cost will encourage compliance over fraud and help rebuild public and corporate trust in recycling.

Next steps: Scale-up and Launch

ReCon2 are now at a transitional stage in the company’s timeline. They spun out from the university earlier this year, but not in the traditional way, instead launching as a not-for-profit entity with support from the University of Manchester’s Innovation Factory. Their team expects that the next year will be pivotal for the company, with the implementation of the UK government’s plastic packaging tax legislation. Recognising that the Plastic Packaging Tax isn’t ambitious enough to incite change, they are working with key external partner OPRL Ltd to develop and launch a “Trust Mark”, underpinned by Recon2 technology, that will be used to inform consumers of the amount of recycled plastic content in packaging.

The ambition is for the technology to also be used to report on the plastic packaging tax. The EU used approx. 20 million tonnes of plastic packaging in 2022 and so the potential demand for both the technology and the trust mark is considerable.

ReCon2’s more immediate next step is to conduct a series of pilot scale trials with their sponsors and early adopters who want to be at the forefront of this change. This includes recyclers, packaging producers, brand owners and grocery chains delivering major trials (multi-tonne) and blind testing to show what is possible.

Dr. Thomas Bennett, Director at ReCon2 and Research Fellow at Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub at the University of Manchester, stated, “We are excited to undertake this journey with our sponsors as they participate in this breakthrough development. Their participation will help further this technology as we engage with the plastics and packaging sectors to create fit-for-purpose innovations.

ReCon2 are working with ERDF support from the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub to scale up ReCon2 masterbatches and stress test the technology. ReCon2 will always have a strong interest in growing their community, but with the ongoing pilot trails over the next 12 months now is an opportune time to explore next steps with them. Prea Ltd, a leading global polymer manufacturing consultancy, have recently joined as part of their technology supporter group.

More news about Prea here.

prea-logo
PREA
0161 207 8007
Website
Email

Subscribe to our newsletter