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The road to eco-sustainability of recycled plastics: from packaging to cars

Maria Teresa Scrivani from Proplast, in collaboration with Marco Monti*, Vito Lambertini+ and Walter Trerè+ talks about European project, PlastiCircle, which looks at promoting the circular economy with regard to recycled plastics.

Eco-sustainability and green solutions are terms that have become more and more common in all industrial sectors, especially for those applications that involve the use of plastics. 

For this reason, “recycling” has become the magic word, the one which needs to be used as many times as possible when designing a new component. This word looks at both the end of life (the “grave”) of the component – that is the waste management and valorisation  – and at its production (the “cradle”) – that is the use of recycled end-of-waste raw materials. 

PlastiCircle is a European project funded by Horizon 2020 framework program, due to end in 2021 and sees the active participation of 20 partners (including R&D centres, industries, municipalities and associations). 

recycled plastics bumpers

PlastiCircle aims to promote the transition towards a circular economy and to contribute to the European Union’s waste management and recycling targets to 2030. While rethinking various phases in the life of waste, from collection to transport and sorting to recycling, PlastiCircle ultimately aims to transform waste into valuable products. 

The consortium is focusing on the development of smart containers for separate waste collection, on the improvement of transport routes, and of sorting and reprocessing technologies, eventually converting packaging waste into value-added products such as foam boards, automotive parts, roofing membranes, garbage bags, asphalt and urban furniture. 

Proplast, a partner of the project,  is working with CRF (Centro Ricerche Fiat) to develop materials for targeted technical applications based on recycled plastics coming from the post-consumer packaging waste (urban waste collection). 

Based on the fact that the automotive sector is already using recycled plastics (mainly post-industrial), the ultimate goal of this activity has been to demonstrate that post-consumer plastics can be a valid alternative to replace post-industrial or even virgin plastics. Moreover, since the feedstock stream comes from packaging, this study also aims to demonstrate that cross-sectorial management of end-of-life components (open-loop recycling) represent an interesting and robust alternative to close-loop solutions.

In the first phase of the study, several target applications have been selected. The choice was made among those components whose technical and aesthetic requirements are compatible with the use of recycled plastics. 

As for polypropylene (PP), several vehicle interior non-aesthetic components have been selected. Proplast and CRF have been in contact with several compounders/recyclers to find the best solution as a raw material. As a consequence, a PP coming from extrusion blow moulding of rigid containers was chosen. Based on the formulation of the benchmark material, different reinforcing additives (namely: talc and glass fibres) and processing aids were also selected. 

One of the more tricky technical aspects that one should take into account when faced with the use of recycled plastics on behalf of its virgin counterpart is related to the impact properties. Indeed, the impurities typically presented in post-consumer recycled plastics, behave as defects and drastically reduce the impact strength. It hampers the exploitation of these materials for technical applications where the specific target of mechanical performance is required, such as in this case, the automotive sector. 

The road to eco-sustainability of recycled plastics
Figure 1

In this study, special care has been devoted to the impact strength, which is compromised by the presence of impurities mainly constituted by PE fraction.

As a result, an rPP-based compound has been developed with mechanical performance in line with FCA requirements and the component reported in figure 1 was injection moulded. This is a semi-structural non-aesthetic part of the vehicle interior. Its production did not show any issue, and the general performance is with the foreseen acceptable range. 

To find out more about the project, visit:

* Proplast, Alessandria (Italy) www.proplast.it

+ CRF, Torino (Italy) www.crf.it

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