The recycling process

Plastics can be recovered for either material or calorific values. This report focuses on recovery for material use, but it is important to note that energy recovery is more important in most countries. Table 3.5 gives data for European Union countries for 1999. The degree of variation is marked, with some countries recovering very little plastic (e.g. Ireland) and others a very high proportion (e.g. Denmark). As the percentage of unrecovered waste increases across countries, the proportion going to energy recovery tends to rise, as in Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden. The only country for which recovered waste represents more than 20% of total consumption and for which material recycling is more important than energy recovery is Germany.

Table 3.5. Plastic recycling and energy recovery (%) in Europe in 1999

Recycling

Energy recovery

Unrecovered waste

Denmark

5.6

66.6

27.8

Netherlands

10.0

50.8

39.2

Sweden

10.1

50.2

39.7

Germany

29.9

25.4

44.7

France

7.9

33.1

59.0

Austria

18.8

21.0

60.2

Belgium

12.8

25.8

61.4

Greece

1.7

17.9

80.4

Italy

8.5

7.2

84.3

Finland

10.3

5.2

84.5

Spain

7.5

5.6

86.9

UK

6.2

5.9

87.9

Portugal

3.0

8.7

88.3

Ireland

4.1

0.0

95.9

EU average

11.3

19.3

69.5

Source: APME (2001).

Plastic waste arises at different stages of the production/consumption cycle and can be recycled in different ways. The basic distinctions are three-fold:

  • Post industrial vs. post consumer.
  • Closed loop recycling vs. open loop recycling.
  • Mechanical recycling vs. feedstock or chemical recycling.

In addition to these is the distinction between material recovery and energy recovery through incineration, or waste-to-energy. These distinctions are discussed below.

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