Despite several years of efforts, the recycling of household plastic packaging is struggling to develop in France. According to a study by Citéo, a household packaging recycling company, the overall recycling rate will reach 28% in 2021, and France is one of the worst European students in this area. However, the opposite is true for agricultural plastics.
Map of the level of plastic packaging recycling in Europe. Credits: Eurostat / European Environment Agency
Efficient sorting at source
Plastic has been a staple of agriculture for decades. Whether improving the preservation of forage in winter or protecting fruits and vegetables from the elements, the use of plastic is numerous and ever-increasing. According to Adivalor (Farmers, Distributors, Agricultural Waste Industrialists), about 116,000 tons of plastic is consumed in the agricultural sector every year.
In this sector, various types of plastic are sorted and then transported by the farmers themselves to the nearest collection point. “Thus, sorting at the source makes it possible to obtain good quality material, since each type of plastic has its own characteristics. For example, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) films, polypropylene (PP) woven fertilizer bags and cords, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) drums of pesticides and detergents… Hence the importance of sorting for material recyclability. ”, explains Jérôme Klaylet, director of the recycling division of Trioworld, a company specializing in agricultural packaging film, visited by Sciences et Avenir.
After significant awareness of the issue, more than 300,000 farmers are now sorting and recycling their waste, Adivalor said. “The preparation consists of drying, rinsing, folding and sorting the plastics that need it, which makes it possible to form the so-called ‘good quality’ waste because it is much easier to recycle for the company responsible for recycling,” the director elaborates. This makes it possible to collect most of the plastic to reach a collection level of approximately 73% of the amount placed on the market, i.e. more than 86,000 tons in 2021. Once collected, 72% of this waste is recycled to produce new plastics. The rest of the stock is unusable because it is poorly prepared or poorly sorted.
210 tons of waste per week
The Swedish company Trioworld (see video below) is at both ends of the plastic recycling sector: it manufactures and recycles at the same facility in Ombre d’Anjou, Maine and the Loire. The Angevin site of 42,000 m² receives about 210 tons of waste per week, processed in this plant, where the machines are constantly working with a deafening noise. Outdoor storage blocks of freshly arrived plastic waste are classified by color into rectangular areas that can be up to 2.50 m high.
“We buy industrial waste, obtained in blocks that consist only of LDPE or low-density polyethylene, in order to turn it back into agricultural stretch film,” Kleile describes. Today, this amounts to about 9,000 tons of recycled waste per year entering two sorting lines, which will soon be equipped with two additional sorting lines, which will increase up to 24,000 tons of recycled waste per year.” The plastic, once formed into balls, is re-integrated into a nearby flexible plastics plant or sold to other manufacturers.
The illusion of 100% recycling by 2025
The goal of the European Union is to recycle 100% of plastic waste, both domestic and agricultural, by 2025. For this, taxes based on the “polluter pays” principle were introduced. For example, the tax on plastics, introduced in early 2021, requires states to pay up to 80 euro cents, or 800 euros per tonne, for every kilogram of unrecycled plastic. This tax cost France 1.2 billion euros in 2021, or 1.5 million tons of unrecycled waste. Even if this figure is on a downward trend, “100% recycled” is still a long way off.
Researcher Natalie Gontar, director of food and packaging research at Inrae, in an interview given to Le Monde in 2020, mentioned the “illusion” of an unattainable and counterproductive goal of 100% recycling by 2025: “Focusing on the unattainable goal of 100% recycling diverts our attention from all other measures available to everyone right now to reduce plastic consumption.”