Packaging recycling processes

The European roadmap for promoting the circular economy requires the development of new processes for the recovery of plastic, paper and cardboard packaging waste. Generating high-quality material flows is an essential step towards homogenising the quality of the fractions, increasing the value of the bales of waste and, creating recycled materials which can compete with virgin material by means of waste recovery processes.

At ITENE we develop new plastic and cardboard recycling processes and mechanical, chemical and enzymatic recycling processes to recover plastic packaging or fractions. We then harness these innovations to provide technological solutions to help the packaging value chain to meet the sustainability objectives, which include increasing the percentage and quality of recycled packaging materials.

procesos de reciclado
procesos de reciclado de materiales
procesos de reciclado de cartónh

Why is it necessary to develop and implement new recycling processes?

In the case of paper and cardboard, Directive (EU) 2018/852 sets a recycling target of 75% of all paper and cardboard materials contained in packaging waste by 2025 and 85% by 2030.

In the case of plastic, the European Union is demanding increasingly rigorous targets for the recovery of plastic waste.

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  • Directive (EU) 2018/852 sets a recycling target of 50% of all plastic packaging by 2025 and 55% by 2030.
  • Directive (EU) 2019/904 aims to reduce the impact of certain single-use plastic products by requiring, among other measures, that bottles made of PET must contain at least 25% of recycled plastic by 2025. This percentage must increase to 30% by 2030 for PET bottles and also embraces bottles made of other plastic materials such as polyethylene (PE).
  • The new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) 2020 extends the use of recycled plastic to polymers other than PET.

Recycling paper and plastic

We are working to develop and adapt technologies to improve disintegration of the cellulosic fibres that are segregated during the pulping process. These innovations enable us to tackle the following challenges:

  • helping recycling plants to improve their recycling processes.
  • by improving these processes, we help to make certain packaging recyclable and therefore enable companies to:
    • validate the recyclability of packaging by means of specific laboratory trials (ATICELCA or INGEDE).
    • demonstrate that their packaging is adapted to comply with the recyclability targets of 75% of all paper and cardboard materials contained in packaging waste by 2025 and 85% by 2030.
    • develop new improved cellulosic packaging solutions that make new features (e.g., enhanced product protection by coatings or laminates) compatible with recyclability.

  • We improve decontamination processes to eradicate contaminants such as mineral oils, thus obtaining higher-quality recycled paper. These innovations enable us to tackle the following challenges:

    • comply with ever more restrictive legislation.
    • ensure the quality of packaging manufactured on the basis of recycled fibres while avoiding the presence of mineral oils.
    • ensure compliance with quality requirements and suitability for food-related applications.
  • We adapt and optimise deinking processes to provide solutions to the following issues:

    • the difficulties that the presence of ink poses on recovered paper.
    • the risks that the presence of inks can pose to human health especially when recycled paper is to be used in food-related applications.
  • We adapt and develop technologies to disintegrate fibres in the pulping process with special emphasis on laminated or coated papers where the challenge is even greater. These solutions enable us to:

    • help companies that use newly developed paper and cardboard laminates and must prove that they are recyclable.
    • make new solutions available to recycling plants to optimise their recycling processes.
    • provide technological solutions to help the entire value chain to meet paper and board packaging recycling targets: 75% by 2025 and 85% by 2030.

Recycling plastic

Waste pre-treatment

Pre-treatment of waste is the preliminary stage to any recovery process. Its purpose is to condition the fraction to be recovered in order to obtain a clean, heterogeneous fraction that can be suitably dosed and protects the equipment used during recovery. This phase includes the following:

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  • elimination of impurities and remains of metals
  • grinding to reduce size
  • washing to clean the waste, elimination of contaminants and separation by density differential

At ITENE we design pre-treatment processes and optimise operating conditions in order to raise the quality of the recycled materials.

Mechanical recycling

Mechanical recycling generally consists of inserting plastic waste – previously subjected to a pre-treatment process – into an extruder to obtain recycled pellets that can be transformed into new products.

However, plastic waste has a number of limitations when it comes to recycling, which are primarily due to its usually poorer properties and potential processing difficulties caused by:

  • the presence of contaminants originating in the packaging and collection, classification and recycling use phases of the material or in complex or multilayer structures.
  • degradation derived from some prior process, from the use given to the material or even the recycling process itself.

ITENE is carrying out research into the following new technologies to improve these processes and enable the use of recycled plastics in high added-value applications:

  • Development of nanometre-scale inorganic additive modification processes to improve their compatibility with recycled plastic materials and consequently the properties of the final product.
  • Reactive extrusion: a continuous process which uses an extruder as a chemical reactor that acts as a vehicle to carry out chemical melt reactions and produce recycled polymers with improved or modified properties.
fabricación de materiales plásticos

In turn, these enhancement methods are based on:

  • Design of specific screw configurations for the optimisation of additive and reinforcement dispersion or reactive extrusion processes, thus improving the performance of recycled plastics in extrusion processes.
  • Online rheology: assessment of the viscoelastic properties of the plastic materials recycled during the extrusion process for in situ adjustment of the process parameters and the additive or reactive extrusion route.


Chemical recycling

Chemical recycling is perceived as an innovative solution to complement mechanical recycling that focuses on the treatment of more complex waste such as:

  • multilayer materials
  • contaminated materials
  • highly degraded materials

Chemical recycling provides the following advantages:

  • recycling and recovering complex plastics, such as multilayer plastic packaging
  • higher quality of the recycled materials (removal of contaminants, odours, etc.)
  • reduced consumption of virgin material
  • increase in recycling rates in line with the European Union’s circular economy strategy
  • the option of using the products obtained to manufacture new plastics of similar quality to those produced with virgin plastic.

Solutions to improve chemical recycling processes

  • We implement processes to remove contaminants (inks, odours and VOCs) thus enabling the incorporation of recycled materials in new, high-value applications. Decontamination and removal of ink and odours enables:

    • enhancing the quality of the recycled materials and the price of the final product.
    • use in high-value applications such as the food industry.
    • removal of organic matter, inks on printed films and odours caused by volatile and semi-volatile compounds.
  • We are developing new delamination processes to achieve effective separation of the layers that comprise a multilayer structure by selectively focusing the process on one of its layers.

    To do so, a target layer is selected on which to act specifically by:

    1) selective dissolution (in non-critical or supercritical conditions)

    2) depolymerisation (layers composed of polyester or polyamide)

    Delamination thus enables us to:

    • obtain separated polymers for subsequent recycling in high-value applications.
    • recover substrates in independent flows.
    • enhance the quantity and quality of the recycled plastic.
  • Depolymerisation enables us to obtain monomers and oligomers from plastic waste for subsequent polymerisation to obtain high-quality plastics. This in turn enables:

    • recycling of complex fractions such as coloured packaging and non-recyclable materials.
    • recovery of high-value monomers/oligomers for industry.
    • profitability of plastic fractions currently disposed of in landfills.

Enzymatic recycling

fractions by the action of enzymes that can break down their polymeric structure. These enzymes are characterised by high substrate specificity, which makes them a powerful tool for the treatment of complex or heterogeneous fractions due to the fact that they can act without the need for prior sorting.

Consequently, biotechnology also enables us to obtain high value-added products – including polymers with properties similar to virgin polymers – from plastic waste.

Biorreactor y pantalla

At ITENE we perform enzymatic recycling by:

  • identifying and developing microorganisms and/or enzymes of interest.
  • pre-treating and conditioning waste and polymers.
  • developing, validating and upscaling depolymerisation processes.
  • purifying high added-value products.
  • developing downstream product-purification processes.
  • How can I help you?

    Antonio Dobón foto
    Antonio Dobón

    Recycling Technologies and Waste Management Area Manager

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