Insights / Recycling
”Instead of PVC, which requires numerous additives, opt for simpler plastics that need fewer additives”
On how a key to cleaner plastic is better design
14 Nov 2023

Who are you?

— I am a strategic advisor at the Swedish Chemicals Agency (Kemikalieinspektionen). My background is in chemistry and ecotoxicology.

You’ve just released a new report about how hazardous chemicals limit the possibilities of plastic recycling. What can you say about it?

— It was commissioned by the Swedish government, Gravenfors explains. Our task was to investigate problematic substances in plastics that impede recycling. We have been working on this report for a year and a half.

— Plastics can have other negative environmental effects, such as pollution, but our focus in this report is on the hazardous substances they contain. Our goal has been to make the information in the report practically useful. Therefore, we have concentrated on examining the most prevalent dangerous substances, which are typically additives in the plastic.

— The most hazardous additive, used in the highest concentration, is some specific plasticisers. For instance, plasticisers can constitute up to half the weight of a PVC hose. Following plasticisers, the most common additives are fillers and then flame retardants. We found that problematic substances are particularly prevalent in the categories of plasticisers and flame retardants.

What are the key takeaways from it?

— In the report, we have reviewed the major plastic flows. Packaging constitutes the largest flow, followed by construction products, vehicles and tires, electronics, and wind turbine blades. Textiles also represent a significant plastic flow and could potentially be among the top five. However, we have excluded textiles from this analysis as we recently conducted a separate report mapping dangerous substances in textiles.

— A key conclusion is that there is a great variation concerning the content of hazardous additives used in different sectors, so we believe that future work should focus on creating product-specific guidelines. Specific knowledge regarding what kind of additives that are typical for the different plastic flows is useful.

— Regarding packaging, there are notable recycling advantages. They are often made from simple plastics, requiring fewer additives. For instance, softeners are not necessary. Instead, low-density polyethylene, which is inherently soft, is often used as a package material. A specific issue with packaging is that dark pigments pose problems. The colour interferes with the ability of detectors at recycling centres to identify the type of plastic. Therefore, packaging in lighter colours is better for recycling.

From your perspective, what are the most important things to think about in packaging to enable its second life and reuse?

— Avoid using black pigments. Use simple plastics with the least possible amount of additives. The recycling industry identifies attached labels as a significant problem. These labels interfere with the detection and sorting of plastics. If a label is necessary, it should be small. Alternatively, consider printing the label directly onto the packaging. It should be noted that the current conditions for recycling packaging are quite favourable. Effective recycling processes are already in place today, and there is potential for further improvement.

We saw a recent Greenpeace report stating the problems with recycled plastic. What’s your view on their takeaways?

— I haven’t studied it in detail, but the report you mention raises interesting aspects, such as how the recycling process itself can contaminate different plastic streams. That’s true; such a risk exists.

You mention potentially coming regulations and restrictions. Which kind of plastics should brands avoid for consumer goods?

— One point we emphasise is that the work involving regulations and restrictions is far from finished. While many problematic substances are already regulated, there are still others that aren’t. Some of these unregulated substances are hazardous and warrant regulation. As for plastics that should be avoided, PVC is a prime example, primarily because it contains a high amount of softener.

What are the keys in order to increase the recycling of plastic?

— I must emphasise that we have not investigated all aspects of recycling. Our focus has been on hazardous substances, and we should not project all obstacles to recycling on the content of hazardous substances, but it’s indeed one of several elements that can impede recycling.

— Swedish Plastic Recycling processes approximately half of all plastic packaging put on the market in Sweden. The reason this figure isn’t higher is due to the fact that not all plastic packaging is placed in recycling bins for transport to Swedish Plastic Recycling’s facilities. This situation could potentially be improved through better information and education. In our report, we have concentrated on the chemical content of plastics. and one key to cleaner plastic is better design. Manufacturers, purchasers, and designers must ensure their products are safe and sustainable designed from the beginning.

— Better design includes choosing the right type of polymer. For instance, instead of PVC, which requires numerous additives, opt for simpler plastics that need fewer additives. Also, as previously mentioned, use as few colours as possible.

Recycling facility Svensk Plaståtervinning in Motala, Sweden.

How will you continue your work in this area?

— We are working on several fronts. Our task is to identify hazardous substances that need additional risk reduction measures such as restrictions. Such restrictions can be implemented at the EU level as well as globally. The report also underscores the necessity for increased market surveillance to ensure compliance with legislation, says Gravenfors. He continues:

— Furthermore, we believe that information about the chemical content of products needs to be available and transparent. Currently, the requirements for information about the composition of plastic products are insufficient. The industry needs straightforward access to data on product composition and content lists. An interesting development at the EU level is the introduction of Digital Product Passports. These will provide details about a product’s durability, chemical content, and the energy consumed during its manufacture.

Erik Gravenfors.

Any other tips to share for brands and executives?

— Find out the contents of your products. Stay curious and determined. You should not accept the claim that there is no information available on the content of chemical substances in articles. While suppliers may occasionally assert this, it is often not the case. The information does exist somewhere. Someone had to order the chemicals used in the product’s assembly, but this information can be lost along the value chain if it’s not actively requested. We need to address this issue to ensure that chemical information is consistently passed along the entire value chain.