In a book chapter published on October 2, 2021, by Springer publishing, Horodytska Oksana and colleagues from the University of Alicante, Spain, and co-authors provide an overview on the challenges in plastics recycling, future end uses of recycled plastics, as well as the future of mechanical recycling including new technologies to improve multilayer packaging recycling, deinking and decontamination technologies, and biopolymer recycling. The EU Circular Economy Action Plan sets mandatory requirements for recycled content (FPF reported), and concerns have been raised about whether recycling targets can be met (FPF reported), which is making discussion on how recycling can be improved essential (FPF reported).

Oksana and co-authors describe that new recycling technologies need to be implemented to recover multilayer materials and to meet quality requirements allowing for “high added value applications.” Here, they consider that the introduction of recycled content in food packaging will bring major benefits. Concerning innovative technologies, the authors find water-based delamination “to be preferable for the recovery of multilayer films” since inks are removed and solvent use is avoided. Stream stripping would further help to remove volatile odor substances, however, it would not remove less-volatile chemicals from the plastic. The authors also express the need to study the sorting and recycling of biopolymers as well as to implement new technologies for dealing with biopolymer waste.

In an article published on September 28, 2021, in the peer-reviewed journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Camila Távora de Mello Soares from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology School of Engineering Sciences in Chemistry, Stockholm, Sweden, and co-authors describe four potential future scenarios for multi-material multilayer plastic packaging (MMPP) for the coming five to ten years. MMPP consists of several layers of different plastic materials that enhance properties such as barrier function (FPF factsheet). Currently, MMPPs are frequently incinerated since standard recycling technologies cannot identify, sort, and separate the different layers.

Using in-depth interviews, de Mello Soares et al. identified several key drivers of future multilayer plastic recycling including environmental benefits, the ability to use recycled material in food-contact packaging, availability of collection/logistic systems, traceability of recyclates, the volume of material to recycle, costs of recycling methods and recycled materials, use of other alternative materials for packaging, consumer behavior, and political decisions, amongst others. Regulatory pressure towards recycling and advanced sorting and separation technologies was found critical for future recycling of MMPP and used to develop a scenario matrix for the future of MMPP recycling. The four scenarios included (1) high-performance material recycling, (2) recycling into hydrocarbons, (3) business as usual, and (4) downcycling. Feedback surveys with experts were used to validate the scenarios and get an idea of the experts’ expectations. Their study showed that “advanced high-performance material recycling encounters systemic bottlenecks, such as insufficient sorting technology for post-consumer waste” while “chemical recycling (feedstock) is concentrating investments as a solution, requiring low input-characterization.” The authors consider that a mix of the four scenarios will be most probable and mainly depend on the availability of regulations and technologies. Generally, they identified “a gap between recycling targets and recycling technologies” which represent “short-term opportunities for more sustainable materials, such as bio-based.”

To assess consumer recycling of bioplastics, Erik Ansink from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands, and co-authors performed a field experiment and reported that consumers who participated have “no clue how to recycle bioplastics.” In their study, published on October 7, 2021, in the journal Ecological Economics, Ansink et al. provided 199 Dutch participants with lemonade cups that were biobased, compostable, or made of conventional plastics. The cups were labeled with different types of bioplastics logos and amounts of recycling information intended to guide proper disposal. They found that “over 90% of subjects dispose of their cup with plastic waste, which is not the intended waste stream for some bioplastics”, showing that “subjects are not responsive to [the provided] information at all.” Only 35% of the participants observed the bioplastic logo, but this did not lead to better recycling compared to the participants not observing the logo. The authors find their study to imply that the included bioplastic logos “are not effective in changing consumers’ disposal behavior for such plastics” and that the “packaging industry should consider consumer behavior when introducing new technologies like bioplastics.” Eco-labels, no matter whether relating to the food or the packaging, do, however, signal higher food quality and safety to consumers (FPF reported).

How design characteristics can influence a consumer’s sorting of plastic food packaging was investigated in an article by Nemat and co-authors from the University of Borås, Sweden, published on October 14, 2021, in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling. The scientists collected 167 images of household waste taken by 135 consumers to identify the most common types of miss-sorted plastic food packaging waste and the factors hindering correct sorting. To complement the latter, they conducted semi-structured and probing interviews with 18 participants. Based on this qualitative analysis, Nemat et al. report that form, size, durability, haptic, and visual communicative aspects of the packaging affect the value the consumer attributes to the packaging. A low value, in turn, is “not considered worth recycling or correctly sort[ing] and are more likely to be miss-sorted.” The study also found that consumers caring about proper waste sorting are hindered by misleading packaging design. Therefore, the authors conclude that new design tactics providing desirable information and increased value to the consumer can help to improve sorting behavior and should be further researched.

Wrong sorting and the resulting contamination of recycling streams is also touched upon in an article published on September 16, 2021, in the journal Waste Management. Camila T´avora de Jenna Meert and colleagues from the State University of New York – University at Buffalo, US, explored how single-use plastic bag bans in the state of New York have influenced retail return polyethylene (PE) film recycling. In the US, the return of post-consumer waste to retailers is the only recycling pathway for plastic films, with PE being the only material currently accepted. The scientists collected PE films from retail return programs from two Western New York grocery stores and sorted them into materials that can be recycled and such that cannot be recycled in the return program, i.e., “contaminants” such as non-PE films, wet/food contaminated plastic, and reusable grocery bags. They found that grocery and retail bags returned for recycling decreased by over 90% and 60%, respectively, after the state’s Bag Waste Reduction Law came into effect. With the decreased contribution of these bags to the overall material recycling stream, existing contamination in the retail return PE recycling programs was subsequently concentrated and reported to have increased by 1.4 to 1.8 times. The authors emphasize that this higher contamination “does increase the cost of recovering and transporting the material, and it may limit end markets the material can be sold into.” They make clear that bag bans are not “categorically bad” and “have many positive environmental impacts, but an increase in retail return film contamination is an overlooked consequence that may impact the films recycling industry.” Therefore, they recommend that future bag bans should be implemented along with increased consumer education, other signage, and strategic placements of bins.



Ansik, E. (2021). “No clue about bioplastics.” Ecological Economics. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2021.107245

de Mello Soares, C., T. (2021). “Recycling of multi-material multilayer plastic packaging: Current trends and future scenario.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling. DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2021.105905

Meert, J. (2021). “Impact of plastic bag bans on retail return polyethylene film recycling contamination rates and speciation.Waste Management. DOI: 10.1016/j.wasman.2021.08.043

Nemat, B. (2021). “Design affordance of plastic food packaging for consumer sorting behaviors.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling. DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2021.105949

Oksana, H. (2021). “Applications and Future of Recycling and Recycled Plastics.” Springer, Singapore. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-16-3627-1_15