Packaging and Sustainability

Material Category

Polyethylene (PE)

Manner and Scope of the Material’s Use

  • Polyethylene (PE) is the most widely produced and used plastic, accounting for over 30 percent of the total world production of plastics. PE is a thermoplastic and belongs to the group of standard-art materials. A distinction is made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and low density polyethylene (called LDPE). HDPE is harder and stiffer than LDPE, can withstand higher temperatures, is less permeable by gases and more resistant to chemicals. LDPE is tougher, more stretchable and more flexible than HDPE. Over 50 percent of all plastic packaging is made of PE, the predominant share (2012: 32 percent of all plastic packaging) of LDPE and LLDPE.

Material Use During Manufacturing

  • The source product of PE -ethylene – is derived from crude oil or natural gas. Like other chemical raw materials, however, ethylene may also be produced from non-fossil, plant-based carbon sources. In Brazil, a sugarcane-based PE (GreenPE) is distributed, which is no different from conventional PE in terms of its chemical makeup and its processing properties.

Collection / Sorting / Recycling

  • The nationwide dual system in Germany collects PE from households which are then used for packaging for retail sale.
  • Using near-infrared technology allows the individual types of synthetic materials in the sorting plants to be separated. Today a sorting accuracy of up to 98 percent is achieved.
  • PE is 100 percent recyclable. With help from the various material-related processes, the used synthetic material packaging can be either remelted directly into new products or processed into regranulate. This grained recycled synthetic material is a cost efficient alternative to new material and high-quality raw material for the synthetic material processing industry.
  • The product range for recycled PE is diverse: films, garbage bags, canisters and drums, trash cans, drinking water pipes, landfill liners, cable insulations.

Development / Background / Outlook

  • In 2012, the proportion of PE in the entire synthetic material processing in Europe was approximately 28 percent. An important advantage of PE is relatively simple processing method. The packaging can be easily integrated into the production process and molded on site, filled and sealed.
  • In addition, the low packing weight results in low transport costs in relation to the filling material.
  • If it is possible to recollect certain types of HDPE packaging from their application fields (e.g. milk bottles) as a “mono-power”, they can feed a recycling process for products suitable for the manufacture of foodstuffs packaging, similarly to PET. Two companies in United Kingdom are already operating processes of this type of post-consumer milk bottles made of HDPE. Other facilities are planned.