Industry Case Study
Insights on companies on-the-ground
How Molecular Recycling Companies are Meeting Safety Standards to Keep Plastics in Play
With the growing demand for high-quality recycled resin, a combination of product testing, industry standards and policy are needed to ensure the safety of recyclable plastics
To advance circular systems and strong end markets for recycled plastic, technology companies must provide a consistent supply of high-quality recycled content that can be used in a wide range of applications. Within the molecular recycling landscape, solvent-based processes offer a considerable advantage toward this goal, as they can be used as the first stage of recycling plastics with known problematic substances, such as chlorinated pigments and brominated flame retardants (1), and can produce high-quality polymers that can meet food-grade and other product standards. In effect, they can help transform plastic feedstock––with a mix of unknown and hazardous additives and contaminants––into high-quality resin output, if the solvent and contaminants are effectively removed in the process.
How to Create Safe and High-Quality Post-Consumer Recycled Plastic (PCR)
Currently, 5.7 million metric tons of polyethylene (PE) film are in circulation in the U.S. and Canada, with a recycling rate of only 11% for post-consumer PE film (2). Purification of hard-to-recycle, low-value plastics, like low-density polyethylene (LDPE) addresses the most abundant form of plastic packaging waste, with the greatest efficiency (3). However, despite the capabilities of purification technology, less literature is available on its ability to ensure solvent does not end up in the final product. It is unclear whether solvent losses can be found in wastewater effluent (4), or if there is occupational risk from exposure to the fugitive emissions of the process. In terms of outputs, it is also unclear how effectively these solvent processes remove chemical additives from the feedstock polymers (5). In the meantime, to sell recycled polymers to compounders, residual additives in the post-consumer recycled (PCR) content must be low enough to comply with standards, especially if the output is high-quality plastic.
To address these solvent-related challenges, best-in-class molecular recycling companies must ensure that they:
- Have low solvent make-up rates;
- Test their outputs to ensure their process removes solvents or contaminants from the final products, in line with health standards and certifications; and
- Evaluate the facility fugitive emissions.
APK, a molecular recycling company that employs purification technology, succeeded in creating high-quality recycled products through a proactive combination of certification and refinement of their product. With one commercial facility operating in Merseburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, the company specializes in the production of plastic granulates, leveraging an efficient solvent-based plastic recycling process called Newcycling®––transforming mixed LDPE, HDPE, PA, PP waste and multi-laminates into pure-sorted PE, PP and PA granulate pellets, for a wide range of production applications. The facility in Germany, which has been online since June 2019, features an annual capacity of 8,000 tons per annum. To achieve ‘virgin-like,’ high-quality output, APK’s Newcycling® technology physically purifies mixed polymer waste factions, mostly from post-industrial and post-consumer sources, including different polymer types found in multi-layer films and mixed plastic waste fractions.
Newcycling® is a purification, solvent-based recycling. This means that instead of breaking down the polymer chain, the process can keep these chains intact, simply removing color or smell in a plastic. For Post Industrial Recycled (PIR) plastic, they can selectively dissolve desired polymers, with control over the input streams to ensure that no Substances of Interest (SOI) are present, and that solvents are a reduced in the final product, so that they can be used for certain packaging, such as those for cosmetics. For PCR content, the decolorization, removal of additives and overall purification process reduces SOIs. With this process, they can precisely extract the targeted polymer from a mix of multilayers or other mixed plastics, obtaining highly pure LDPE that can be returned into packaging.
To ensure the quality and safety of their end products, APK tested their outputs––specifically, Mersalen® LDPE NCY, the name under which APK’s LDPE recyclate is sold––and obtained compliance with the REACH regulation of the European Union (EU), validating the potential for solvent based-processes to meet quality standards that are both safe and sustainable (HH ES standard). REACH (EC 1907/2006) aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment through better and earlier identification of the intrinsic properties of chemical substances. This is done by the four processes of REACH: registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals. REACH also aims to enhance innovation and competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry (6). REACH’s HH EE standard is mandated across technologies to account for the flow of plastics across industries and develop governance to ensure public safety.
In 2020, Mersalen® LDPE NCY first underwent a comprehensive migration analysis, which confirmed its purity level to be ‘decisively higher’ than recyclates from standard mechanical recycling. Two human toxicological risk evaluations were then performed by two independent toxicology experts, to evaluate the use of APK’s LDPE recyclate types in both flexible and rigid packaging applications for cosmetics and in personal hygiene products. Both evaluations concluded that the recyclates could safely be used for these applications and that they met all mandatory legal requirements.
Later that year, in November 2020, APK provided some evidence that residual solvent content in recyclate is not present in amounts that might pose adverse health impacts. The company published a news release stating that the company performed a detailed toxicological and risk assessment study on their Newcycling recycling process and their Mersalen® LDPE NCY product line. APK noted that in addition to meeting stringent requirements for the cosmetics industry, their ultimate objective is to achieve food contact approval for Mersalen® LDPE NCY (7).
Looking forward, APK has a new, larger-scale facility planned for 2022-2023 with a capacity of around 20,000 tons of output per annum to meet market demand. They also continue to build on their partnerships with stakeholders across the value chain, including Huhtamaki, to achieve circularity in the plastic packaging segment. “What we see as really important is the need for regular and comprehensive flow of communication between all the parties involved. This will be crucial to overcome the remaining upcoming challenges…Today it is very important to have good communication lines from the resin suppliers all the way to the end customers; that all involved parties are speaking the same language and know what is going on in the market. We are all working towards the same goal,” says Florian Riedl, Director of Business Development at APK. Given the technological developments, and in view of research and development efforts, APK is hopeful of obtaining food contact approval for recyclates derived from post-industrial waste source, in the mid-term. In the longer-term, they aim for the same post-consumer recycled products, shortly after the new post-consumer waste plant comes online.
The next big task is to assess the necessary requirements for products inside the packaging. APK’s risk assessment and confirmation that the resins produced and integrated in tube laminates are suitable for cosmetic applications are a step forward.
Call to Action
Technology companies need to proactively test their products to build faith in molecular recycling’s ability to meet product standards consistently and safely. As communities and markets face the widespread plastics waste challenge, in tandem with a growing demand for high-quality recycled plastics, policy needs to regulate and account for the flow of plastics across industries and develop governance to ensure public safety. In the short-term, innovative companies that take on these voluntary actions to certify their products will be met with great interest from the market, as demand for food-grade plastics stays at the fore and continues to rise.
 Interview with APK
 Closed Loop Partners. (2021, January 27). A Data Visualization Tool Identifying Opportunities to Recapture Plastic in the US & Canada. https://www.closedlooppartners.com/research/us-and-canada-recycling-infrastructure-and-plastic-waste-map/
 See pages 49-52 of this report.
 Interview with APK
 Interview with APK
 “REACH – Chemicals – Environment – European Commission.” Europa.eu, 2021, ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/reach_en.htm. Accessed 4 Mar. 2021.
 APK website, 11/4/20 press release