In France, the overall consumption of material (fossil energy resources, biomass, metals, non-metallic minerals) is nearly 800 million tons per annum. In 2017 for example this reached 783 Mt. In the same year, the amount of the five main materials collected for recycling (raw steel/cast iron, paper-cardboard, plastic, aluminium, glass) achieved 24.1 Mt, with 16.9 Mt ultimately being included in French production. It’s clearly time to accelerate, and in 2021 the foundations were laid for a change of scale.
Although recycling offers many benefits (limiting consumption of virgin resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adding value, reducing France’s external dependency), several obstacles to the use of recycled materials remain. These particularly include limited knowledge about the resource itself (e.g. traceability, characterization), batch variability in secondary raw materials (SRM), the need to improve sorting (separation techniques, etc.) and regeneration techniques, not forgetting the need to adapt production equipment to be able to incorporate recycled materials.
Another important point is the increasing significance of the question of the health risks linked to using recycled materials for food packaging. A recent example is the five-year framework agreement signed in July by LNE (French National Measuring and Testing Laboratory), INRAE (French National Institute for Research into Agriculture, Food and the Environment), IPC (French Industrial Technical Centre for Plastics Processes and Composites) and CTCPA (French Technical Centre for the Conservation of Agricultural products) to strengthen their collaboration in evaluating these risks.
A new industry contract
Beyond these obstacles, competition remains between virgin raw materials (or ‘extractive materials’) and recycled raw materials for which the price essentially depends on the fixed costs of the waste processing. In an amendment signed in June 2021 to the “Waste Transformation and Recycling” industry contract for the period 2021-2024, the professionals involved declared that they “wish to develop mechanisms encouraging the use of SRM even where the cost difference would favour virgin raw materials”.
In a wider manner, this new contract fixes in particular the objective of accelerating plastic recycling and the incorporation of recycled materials. The FEDEREC (French Professional Federation of Recycling Companies) and the FNADE (French Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services) are committed to working with each sector. The idea is to produce a review of what could possibly be done to strengthen demand for SRM and to draw up a management reporting system providing information about the main volumes (waste produced, collected and recycled, SRM re-incorporated) and import/export-related trends and developments.
A national “Recyclability, Recycling and Reincorporation of Materials” strategy
The government focused on this objective in September 2021 in the context of its national strategy to accelerate the recycling of five materials: plastics, composites, textiles, strategic metals, paper-cardboard. Already provided with €200M as part of France Relance (the French government programme aimed at relaunching the country’s economy after the COVID pandemic), this strategy will benefit from an additional €370M from the PIA (French government Future Investment Programme) for 2021-2027 to support R&D for recycling solutions and the development of training and skills, and to help with the deployment of industrial battery recycling units and the adaptation of industrial production equipment to re-use SRM in new production cycles. In this context a Request for Proposals was issued: ”Innovative solutions for improving the recyclability, recycling and reincorporation of materials” (RRR RFP).
Apart from product design and waste collection and sorting, the projects expected from this RFP should make it possible to overcome the obstacles to the preparation and reincorporation of materials. Preparing materials essentially means “producing SRM of sufficient, controlled and consistent quality and designing processes for producing new materials envisaging their use across different sectors” (‘open-loop recycling’).
In terms of the reincorporation of material, the idea is to “develop, reinforce and adapt the manufacturing base to contribute to improving the long-term substitution of virgin raw materials”. It is expected, for example, that technologies will be developed enabling the quality of paper-cardboard SRM products to be improved for new (including food-related) applications, or for mechanical and chemical recycling of composites to facilitate their reincorporation.
Minimum recycled content levels: improvements are possible
According to the National Recycling review published at the beginning of 2021 by the ADEME, in 2017 paper-cardboard demonstrated a recycled content level of 71%, glass: 61%, aluminium: 51%, steel and cast iron: 47%. For plastic on the other hand, the overall level was 6% and for textiles it was “less than 5%” with no further detail given.
In its White Paper on the recycling industry in 2030, the FEDEREC pointed out in 2015 that “in order to increase the inclusion rate of recycled materials in products and to enable the development of innovative applications for materials coming from tomorrow’s recycled resources, it [is] essential to better reconcile supply and demand”.
By way of example, we know that industries need recycled aluminium of very high purity if they are to integrate it into their re-casting process, since the smallest trace of heavy metals will affect the melt specifications. To address these requirements, recycling companies are developing ever-more innovative solutions, adapted to the final users, as Norwegian recycling company TOMRA recently demonstrated with Alutrade in the United Kingdom.
For their part, French regulations are changing to conform to European requirements. Article 61 of the AGEC* law, for example, states that: “the placing on the market of certain categories of products and materials may be made conditional upon the inclusion of a minimum level of recycled material, with the exception of materials coming from renewable raw materials, providing that the LCA of this obligation is positive. These categories and levels (…) will be fixed by decree”. Since then, a decree has been published: Decree no. 2021-1610 dated 9 December 2021, fixing a level of 25% for January 1st 2025 and 30% for January 1st 2030 for plastic intended for use in drinks bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Other decrees are expected to follow.
*Anti-Wastage law for a Circular Economy n° 2020-105 dated 10 February 2020.