English 7.12.2016

Where does plastic packaging go?

Recycling of household plastic packaging started in Finland at the beginning of 2016. Where does an empty butter carton end up after it leaves the recycling bin? How does it turn into a new plastic product?

Loads of them: plastic bags, containers, canisters and bottles. Bales of plastic are stored in front of the Ekokem plastic refinery in Riihimäki. They are labelled either H or LD, which indicates the type of plastic in each bale.

When you recycle a butter carton or shampoo bottle, it will end up in a bale weighing 300-400kg. This is just one phase of a complex recycling process.

The first phase is the sorting you do at home. When a butter carton is empty, it needs to be rinsed and allowed to dry before it can be recycled. A plastic bottle lid is sometimes made of different plastic to the bottle and must be recycled separately.

Here at the plastic refinery you understand why the recycled plastics need to be clean.

“The idea is to keep the microbe levels as low as possible. Food residue would cause a problem with mould, which would be a health hazard for the refinery employees,” explains Camilla Wiik, who is the manager of the plastics recycling at the Circular Economy Village.

The reason a lid needs to be removed from the bottle is that they may be made of different plastics, and the sensors may reject the bottle itself. Different packaging should never be stacked inside each other as the sensors only identify the types of plastic from their outer surface. There is a risk of reduced quality of recycled material.

From bin to the separating machine

Ekokem’s plastic refinery, opened at the beginning of May, is still running tests, which allow the process to be adjusted according to the material received. Plastic packaging separated from mixed waste also run through the process. Plastic is also collected from businesses and farms.

“Consumer packaging are the quickest plastic waste to recycle, and the quality is good,” says Camilla Wiik.

“If you think of the packaging for sausages, its cycle from the factory to the shop to the bin is quite quick, the packaging returns to the recycling process in no time at all.”

At Ekokem, plastic travels through seven separating machines, and each machine uses its sensors to recognise a specific type of plastic. Plastic bags are picked up by a machine that identifies polyethylene film and uses an air jet to separate the material. A machine looking for hard polyethylene finds detergent bottles and cosmetics containers, while the polypropylene machine will take care of butter cartons. If there is any material that the machines do not recognise, this will be turned into recovered fuel. One way or another, all waste is reused. The company has specially invested in processes that reuse composite materials. These are used for the production of plastic profiles at another Ekokem plant.

Carton turns into flakes

After the plastic objects have been sorted and baled, they move to the next phase, which is crushing. Plastic is crushed into smaller pieces and washed to ensure that all impurities such as food residue and labels are removed.

All plastics refined into granulates at the Ekokem plant float, which means that unwanted material such as metal and sand will sink while plastic floats in the washing line. The plastic is then dried.

Wiik describes the technology: “The drying process involves elements that crush and spin the material as well as a heat coil.”

Dry plastic looks like pale fluff; it is light and feels like snowflakes, and most of the colours seem to have disappeared. The fluff is packed in large white sacks to wait for further processing.

Plastic bags from granulates

Around 30 people work in three shifts at the eco and plastic refineries, but very few are involved in machine maintenance. Plastic waste goes through the machines by itself, it can be seen in glimpses and then it comes out of the process in various forms.

The extruder is the last step in the process. The dry flake-like fluff turns into small hard granulates as it is melted at 150 degrees, filtered and cooled. Recycled plastic is turned into CIRCO granulates, which are sold as raw material to manufacturers of plastic products. It can be mixed with other materials depending on the type of plastic that is required.

The granulates are dark grey due to the process of melting plastics of different colours together. Many supermarket plastic bags are this colour; it tells you that they are made of recycled plastic.

Wiik explains that the granulates are especially popular as material for different kinds of pipes and containers. Recycled plastic can replace so-called virgin plastic. The most important reason for the use of recycled plastic is its eco-friendliness. The carbon footprint of recycled plastic is significantly lower than that of virgin plastic, and the production requires a lot less energy.

“The film blowing method is the most common one used in the manufacturing of LD polyethylene products. It’s used for making plastic bags, for example,” Wiik adds.

The granulates delivered to buyers are LD polyethylene, HD polyethylene and polypropylene, and they leave the Riihimäki plant in sacks and containers.

The Circular Economy Village

Ekokem is building a circular economy society where the amount of waste is minimal and materials are not wasted.

“Our vision is to recycle everything that can be safely recycled. In addition to recycling, our priority is to remove and handle all harmful elements appropriately,” says Wiik.

Consumers are not allowed to put packaging soiled with hazardous substances, such as oil canisters, into the recycling bin. These are collected with other hazardous waste.

Finland has been slow in launching a recycling system for plastic packaging used by consumers, who are only now learning to recycle them. This is not difficult: packages are emptied, rinsed with water, drained and bagged separately from other waste.

“When it comes to recycling consumer plastics, we are far behind countries like Sweden. For a long time, we have only recycled deposit bottles and packaging films. The recycling target for non-deposit packaging is 16 percent in 2016, and as high as 22 percent in 2020. This means that we must recycle 12,000 tonnes more than in 2015. The goal is to collect at least 6,000 tonnes from consumers in 2016.”

Around half of B2B plastic waste recycled

“Plastic packaging waste has been collected in Finland since the 1970s,” says Suomen Uusiomuovi Oy’s managing director Vesa Soini. In practical terms this means that waste goes through environmental management companies and recycling operators to refineries.

The plastic collected from businesses is also turned into granulates.

“Most of the B2B waste, such as pallet wrap, is easy to recycle, while canisters and multilayer packages are not recycled on the same scale,” Soini explains.

Between 40 and 50 percent of B2B packaging is recycled in Finland, which amounts to around 14,000 tonnes; for consumer packaging this figure is less than 10 percent. A lot of B2B packaging is also reused.

“There are pools that help their members to reuse boxes and containers. Around 67 percent of plastic packaging is reused, in other words, only around 33 percent need to be recycled or reused in other contexts. We are one of the top European countries to reuse plastic packaging,” says Soini.

Text Päivi Maaniitty, photo Ville Rinne

For more information about recycling of B2B packaging, please visit www.uusiomuovi.fi/fin/yrityksille (in Finnish)


Sorting of household plastic packaging waste

You can recycle empty, clean and dry household plastic packaging
• Recyclable items include food packaging, detergent packaging, plastic bottles, bags and wraps as well as EPS packaging.

What you cannot recycle
• Dirty plastic packaging and mixed waste
• PVC packaging
• Other plastic products or B2B packaging
• For example, a freezer tub and tarpaulin are not packaging but plastic products, and they are recycled by municipalities.

Please remember
• Caps, lids, pumps and similar must be removed and put in the recycling bin separately. Caps and lids are often made of different plastic than the rest of the packaging.
• If a packaging has a carton case wrapped around a plastic cup and a metal lid and the parts can be detached, each part must be put into the relevant recycling bin.
• Packaging made of different types of plastic should never be stacked inside each other as the sensors only identify the outermost packaging.
• You can leave the price label on a fruit bag.
• PVC packaging can be identified by the PVC code (03). If there is no code, you can test the product by bending it. If a white edge appears, the packaging is possibly made of PVC. If you are unsure, dispose of the packaging with mixed waste.
• Coffee and crisp bags sometimes have a metal inner surface but they may still be plastic packaging as more than 50 percent of their weight is plastic.
• Packaging made of biodegradable plastic should be put into compost but they can also be put into our containers. They will not be used in new plastic products but in energy production instead.
• Packaging containing hazardous substances or residues cannot be recycled. For example, engine oil contaminates other packages and causes enormous problems for the process. These packaging must be taken to municipal collection points.
• Empty medicine tubs can be recycled but packaging containing medicine or residue must be taken to a pharmacy or municipal collection point.
• Packaging should be empty, clean and dry. As a rule, packaging should be so clean that they can be stored at home for a couple of weeks. If a quick rinse with cold water is not enough, it may be more eco-friendly to dispose of the packaging with mixed waste.