In a new study led by the Universities of Portsmouth and Ghent, research revealed that larger scale recycling collections of overlooked plastic types can deliver economic viability. Focusing on non-household plastic waste, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) trays and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) wrapping film, the cost-benefit study has the potential to reshape how local authorities handle these materials.
Typically used for packaging fruits, vegetables, and prevalent in industrial applications, these plastics often end up as non-household end-use plastic waste generated by commercial, industrial and institutional activities. Researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth and Ghent have found that increasing the scale of recycling for these plastic types, makes them more economically viable.
The study is part of the Plasticity project - which aims to develop strategies and solutions that could increase recycling rates in EU urban environments from the current levels of 20-30 per cent to over 50 per cent.
The study established a crucial benchmark, revealing that companies must collect and properly recycle a minimum of 10,500 tonnes per year of this waste to achieve a positive net economic balance. This amount is comparable to what a medium-sized city like Ghent and its surrounding municipalities might generate.
The implications of this research extend beyond a scientific breakthrough. It offers a profound opportunity to revolutionise plastic recycling practices, especially in commercial and industrial sectors across Europe. With Europe standing as the world’s second-largest plastic polluter, these findings are timely, holding the potential to aid in achieving recycling targets and reducing the carbon footprint.
This interdisciplinary study shows that well-designed waste management systems can drive new products and services for the green economy. It demonstrates how place-based investment in new waste management infrastructure - combined with innovative recycling technologies and new logistics to collect ‘lost plastics’ -can boost sustainable regional development and support recycling hubs.
Professor Diego Vazquez-Brust , University of Portsmouth
Professor Diego Vazquez-Brust from the University of Portsmouth explains the broader impact of the research. He says: “This interdisciplinary study shows that well-designed waste management systems can drive new products and services for the green economy. It demonstrates how place-based investment in new waste management infrastructure - combined with innovative recycling technologies and new logistics to collect ‘lost plastics’ -can boost sustainable regional development and support recycling hubs.
“The Plasticity project’s overarching results indicate that technical solutions and regulatory pressures alone are insufficient for substantial economic growth and environmental benefits. Instead, the implementation of regional waste management systems that add value to the economy requires radical changes in the behaviours and practices of various stakeholders.”
The study specifically explores the selective collection and mechanical recycling of non-household and end-use plastic film waste, a sector often overlooked in waste management. By employing cost-benefit analysis and real-world data, the research not only demonstrates the economic viability of these sustainable solutions but also highlights their attractiveness.
Key findings of the study include:
Economic feasibility: Annual costs of collecting and recycling non-household end-use plastic film waste range from 635 to 1,445 euros per tonne output, with more favourable scenarios based on collection frequencies and plant layouts.
Scaling for success: Achieving a positive net economic balance requires a minimum collection of 10,000 tonnes/year of waste, underscoring the importance of scale in plastic recycling.
Carbon footprint reduction: Recycling non-household plastic film waste can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49-79 per cent compared to traditional methods, a significant step toward a sustainable future.
This research emphasises the critical need for robust waste management systems, regulatory frameworks, and incentives to encourage proper waste separation at the source, ensuring high feedstock quality for recycling operations and promoting a circular economy.
The study has been published in the ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering journal.