Recycling industrial plastic packaging

Recycling plastic consumer packaging waste has long been easy and is a well-established practice for most consumers. When it comes to the recycling of industrial plastic packaging, however, the situation is different, and there are hardly any systems in place for this purpose. Kiilto brought together enthusiastic partners to pilot the recovery of HDPE packaging during the year with eight customer companies. The result is a closed recycling system for packaging material.

Plastic has a worse reputation than it deserves. In fact, plastic is a unique packaging material for products for which cardboard packaging, for instance, is unsuitable. Problems related to plastic waste can partly be solved by effective circular economy solutions, as it is essential that plastic can be recycled and does not enter the environment.

Many companies, including Kiilto, have long used recycled plastic alongside new plastic in their packaging. According to product development manager Heidi Kähkönen, Kiilto wants to explore opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and further develop the circular economy. 

“In addition to recycling, we saw the possibility of a closed packaging cycle – that is, new packaging could be manufactured from collected used packaging”, she says.

Enthusiastic customers

In the summer of 2019, Kiilto piloted the recovery of product packaging for the first time with Moomin World theme park in Naantali. The promising results resulted in a continuation pilot project involving several companies from the customer base of Kiilto’s professional hygiene operations.

“Customers were happy to participate in the experiment, as many had already thought about it but did not know how to begin recycling”, Kähkönen says.

“In addition to the customers, the pilot project also required a waste management company to collect the packaging from the customer’s premises and handle intermediate storage and transport it to the recycling plant. In some cases, it may also be necessary to reach an agreement on collaboration with the organiser of waste management of the property in order to agree on collection containers.”

Lessons learned

Although all parties involved welcomed the results of the pilot projects carried out during the year, some effort was required in getting started. A lot was learned along the way, however.

“The biggest difficulty in experiments like this is in the early stages, when there is no volume yet. Material flows are small and handling them is fairly expensive. The second challenge is the space taken up by used packaging. Customers rarely have a compressor for squeezing hard plastic packaging into a smaller space. So, we have to transport air”, Kähkönen says. 

The list of things to consider also includes the collection of plastics in their own collection container. This sounds simple but is not always straightforward.

“Sometimes the customer does not have enough space for a plastic collection container. This was the case with one urban site. Collection containers must also be clearly marked so that they do not end up in the wrong place. At one site, another waste management company took the plastics and they most likely ended up being burned for energy.”

Quality of recycled plastic is important

To be suitable for recycling, packaging must be sufficiently clean. Detergent packaging is suitable for recycling, as it is easy to rinse. Detergent residues must not remain in the packaging. Kähkönen points out that when aiming for a positive environmental impact, it is also important to avoid using too much water. The cleaning of packaging may become a difficult problem for certain industries. However, packaging materials also provide materials that are easy to recycle as they are.

“The LDPE film around transportation pallets is well suited to recycling, because there is a lot of material in the cycle. Compressors are commonly used for film plastics, which allows the plastic to be pressed to take up a small space. Its transport is therefore efficient. Cardboard is also easy to recycle”, Kähkönen adds.

In order to find applications for recycled plastic, the quality of the plastic is important.

“Recycling is not genuinely possible if there is no end use for the recycled plastic. The best thing is if the value of the plastic packaging can be retained in the chain so that new packaging can be made.

Aiming for a closed recycling loop 

According to Kähkönen, since the pilots with the customers were successful the next goal was to achieve a closed cycle. This meant that new packaging would be used to make products for the company from the collected Kiilto packaging. A good deal of knowledge and experience has been accumulated. According to Kähkönen, the goal has been achieved, but each link in the chain must work.

The user of the product must rinse and sort the packaging correctly. When the collection point is filled, the packaging waste is collected and taken for intermediate storage. The recycling plant produces recycled plastic from the packaging, and this is used by the packaging manufacturer to manufacture new packaging. For the chain to work, the quality of the recycled plastic must remain good, and the plastic must not become contaminated at any of the different stages. 

“For example, Kiilto detergent packaging is blow-moulded high-density polyethylene. This manufacturing technology requires high-quality recycled plastic”, Kähkönen points out.

In the closed recycling chain, the crucial links begin to fit into place.

“Customers want to recycle, and Kiilto is interested in using recycled plastic. There are several recycling plants in Finland that can use packaging waste from companies.”

One challenge, however, is logistics. In order to process plastics at a recycling plant, several tons of the plastic packaging are needed at a time. If a company produces a small amount of plastic packaging waste, it does not make sense to collect it separately. After all, the environmental impacts of transportation must also be considered.

“At the moment, the missing link is cost-effective logistics. This is what we are now piloting with a waste management partner, LHJ Group. I’m confident that a solution to the problem can be found as long as there is enough willingness to make it work. Companies need ready-made solutions for how they can begin recycling plastic packaging. Of course, it must also be acknowledged that sometimes the amount of plastic packaging waste can be so small that from an environmental perspective it makes no sense to arrange separate collection. I think things are going to get better step by step, though. Not everything is in place yet”, Kähkönen adds.

“On the other hand, if there are many companies close to each other, collecting the waste packaging becomes more cost-effective. Perhaps a waste management company may have a vehicle that can compress plastic packaging, which would improve transport capacity.”

Focusing on the environment

Despite the problems to be resolved, Kiilto is quite enthusiastic about the prospect of a closed recycling loop.

“It’s really great that we get to pilot it”, says Kähkönen.

“The environmental impact of a closed cycle depends on processes and logistics arrangements, but according to various sources the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from recycled plastic are well below those resulting from the manufacture of new plastics. It is often mentioned that the transport of packaging causes harmful emissions, but it is worth noting that energy or mixed waste must also be picked up from the customer’s premises and transported for further processing.”

Packaging recovery and closed-cycle piloting are part of Kiilto’s promise to the environment, and one consideration related to this is green packaging and logistics. Kiilto’s aim is that by 2025, seventy per cent of Kiilto’s packaging will consist of reusable, recycled or renewable materials.

“Although our promise has been the driving force behind this project, the project has also highlighted the power and importance of cooperation. New ideas are certainly needed to find the best operating models. They can best be found by working together”, Kähkönen notes. 

Support measures needed at societal level

“Industrial plastic packaging must be sorted and collected at the source and according to the types of plastic materials used. Consumers can put all plastics in the collection container for consumers. In addition, industrial plastic packaging cannot be brought to the Rinki collection points for consumers or disposed of in property-specific consumer collection containers. Separate collection logistics are necessary for companies”, Kähkönen says in summarising the differences in recycling processes for consumer and industrial packaging.

According to Kähkönen, in addition to collaboration between companies it is also necessary to work together with decision-makers. As she points out, societal action should promote environmental wellbeing and recycling.

“At the moment, good deeds for the environment are often expensive for companies.”