The obstacles Chile faces to achieve its plastics recycling ambitions

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, September 06, 2022
The obstacles Chile faces to achieve its plastics recycling ambitions

Within a year, all Chilean companies that introduce at least 300kg a year of plastic containers or packaging on the market will have to be part of and finance the management and revaluation of the materials, once the goals of the REP law (extended producer responsibility) take full effect.

However, for the Chilean Plastics Pact, an initiative led by the environment ministry and Fundación Chile, this is just one more step and they have launched a new publicity campaign called ‘Tough on Flexibles’, which focuses on encouraging the recycling of flexible plastics.

To find out more about this and the challenges that flexible plastics present for the country's recycling goals, BNamericas spoke with Tania Bishara, senior consultant for the Chilean Plastics Pact.

BNamericas: How prevalent is flexible plastic packaging at the household level?

Bishara: It’s one of the materials most used by the food industry for packaging. It represents about half the containers that are placed on the market today, and this is because they are very versatile in all their applications compared to rigid plastics, and they are also very well designed for their function.

They also have low weight in relation to their volume, so they’re more economical and efficient for transportation, and have a low environmental footprint compared to other materials at this stage. 

It’s known that around 50Mt of this type of packaging are produced globally, or about 40% of all plastic packaging in terms of weight.

These are mainly single-use packaging, which is rarely recycled globally, and is generally used for waste-to-energy through incineration.

In Europe, 30% is recycled and 70% goes to energy recovery. However, in recent years recycling is being promoted more, increasing recovery goals, in order to reduce the percentage of that goes to landfills or incineration, that is, to energy recovery.

In Chile they have only been recycled in pilot programs, and they represent about half of the packaging on the market.

BNamericas: What can you tell us about the ‘Tough on Flexibles’ campaign?

Bishara: Today there is no systematic collection of flexible plastic, so that makes it difficult for there to be enough material to be recycled.

So what we want to do is promote its collection so we can collect enough material to be recycled, because today the ‘clean points’ [where people leave materials to be recycled] that exist at the national level cannot dispose of this type of material.

There is a lot of confusion among the population regarding the recyclability of these materials despite the fact it’s known they can be recycled. So the idea is to inform people so they separate these materials in their homes, in order to increase their collection, because today it’s not being recycled.

In this sense, it’s important to highlight that all the conditions currently exist to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and technical capacity to incorporate flexible home post-consumption into the same recovery process as flexible industrial post-consumption.

The ‘Tough with the Flexible’ campaign seeks to evaluate the feasibility of separating and classifying household flexible plastic containers collected at the community level in order to later recycle them.

In this campaign, the call is to incorporate two types of flexible plastics into recycling containers: flexible PP5 and flexible PE4.

Flexible PP5 (flexible polypropylene) is found in wrappers for pasta, cookies, hamburgers, ice cream, cereals and candies, among others, and are usually labeled with the number 5.

Flexible PE4 (low-density polyethylene) is found in bread containers, toilet paper, absorbent paper and napkins, diapers, rice, powdered detergent, frozen vegetables, bottle and can packs, and garbage bags, among others. Sometimes they are labeled with the number 4.

The first stage of the campaign will be implemented in the [capital’s] Lo Barnechea district, starting in August. Flexible material is also being collected in Ñuñoa and part of Colina, that use a single-flow recycling system, which consists of separating all recyclable material into a single container, simplifying and facilitating the participation of neighbors, a key aspect, considering that the efficiency of the process and its results depend largely on the quality of the material available from homes.

Once separated and classified, the flexible plastics will be recovered and recycled to be reused as raw material for the manufacture of new products, thus returning to the circular economy chain. In this process, flexible PP5 will be transformed into a band, a tape used to pack all kinds of boxes and packages for various industries, such as agriculture. PE4, meanwhile, will be used to manufacture garbage bags.

BNamericas: Could the recycling of flexible plastics in Chile be incentivized using current legislation?

Bishara: The REP law has containers and packaging as one of its central points.

Next year a series of goals for the recycling of packaging of different materials come into effect. Plastic materials are all lumped together, there’s no specific regulation for flexible plastics.

The single-use plastics law doesn’t necessarily cover this, because it’s focused on containers from food outlets, and not those on supermarket shelves, which would be covered by the REP law. 

BNamericas: Do you think there should be additional regulations to deal more efficiently with flexible plastics?

Bishara: There isn’t a known example of a specific regulation for flexible plastics at an international level. In Europe’s case valorization goals for plastic packaging don’t differentiate by plastic type either. 

In the case of Europe, a lot of flexible plastic is used for incineration, but now there are efforts so that it is revalued and recycled instead. An example of this is the Ceflex initiative, which aims to find viable, practical and economic solutions to the problems that flexible packaging presents today and thus define a market for recovered flexible plastics. The project consortium includes more than 160 participants between companies, associations and organizations.

It would be feasible to promote specific regulations for flexible plastics in the medium or long term. If encouraged, regulations could be a long-term option.

BNamericas: In Chile, waste collection is generally in the hands of the municipalities. Do you think these and the new regional governments [GOREs] should also have powers to enforce recycling regulations?

Bishara: Municipalities can be part of the REP law through Integrated Management Systems [SIG in Spanish]

It’s key that municipalities are part of this, because they’ll be in charge of separation at source, selective collection, everything that is a reception and storage facility, and promote environmental education activities, not only in recycling but in prevention of residue generation.

The municipality will play a major role in the application of the REP law. It’s key that they begin to prepare now.

On the other hand, the GOREs are also key in the allocation of resources that allow the enabling of infrastructure for recycling, in order to establish this entire ecosystem to meet the goals imposed by the REP Law.

In the case of regional governments, they can prioritize financing for recycling projects, both at the infrastructure and communication levels.

Both willingness and funding are needed to generate this ecosystem for the operation of the REP law.

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