The European Commission revealed last week the results of the so-called ‘green paper’ public consultation on plastic waste, launched in March. The European Parliament’s official opinion is expected this week.
The respondents - 60% industry, 19% NGO and 14 environment ministries - called for a ‘greening’ of plastics, with landfill bans, 'real' lifecycle costs and better funding for recycling infrastructure to reduce its environmental footprint.
The European environment commissioner, Janez Potočnik, referred to the material as “drastic plastic” due to concerns over waste, particularly in the world’s oceans, during a speech to unveil the green paper's results.
But for industry, the experience of the London 2012 Olympics suggests that plastics can still play a big role in a greener economy. More than a year after the event, many of the games’ temporary structures have found new uses.
“The tribune for the London 2012 swimming arena now could be garden hoses,” said Jean-Pol Verlaine, technical developer at Solvin, the PVC wing of Solvay Plastics.
The Olympics’ organisers had decided to construct parts of some of the major venues from lightweight, removable Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic rather than leave vast unusable structures within the already-squeezed UK capital.
The Aquatics Centre, designed by British architect Zahia Hadid, contained 15,000 PVC temporary chairs and 8000 square metres of external PVC wrap.
That the organisers used PVC as a way of restricting the games’ environmental impact may seem at odds with the received wisdom on plastics. The British government had originally banned the use of PVC during the Olympics as part of a drive to make them the “greenest ever”, only to U-turn in the run-up to the event.
“As we have done in the past with materials such as timber and concrete, we want to use the opportunity of hosting the London 2012 Games to work with industry to set new standards. In this case this may help move the industry towards more sustainable manufacture, use and disposal of PVC fabrics,” said Dan Epstein, head of sustainable development for the London Olympic Delivery Authority.
The Olympic PVC was recycled using the so-called Vinyloop process, a method of breaking the plastic apart so it can be reformed for other uses, devised by Solvin and French manufacturing group Serge Ferrari.
Tonnes of the collected PVC are separated using heat and different solvents, which depend on the plastics' composite materials, such as textiles, glass or paper. The non-plastic residues are then burned and the heat redirected back into the process.
The PVC is then left at something approaching the newly produced ‘virgin’ material. “The product can be recycled about seven times but after that you need extra additives,” Verlaine told reporters during a Solvin factory visit last week.
The PVC industry, gathered together under the VinylPlus programme, has a target to recycle at least 800,000 tonnes of PVC every year by 2020. Last year just over 360,000 tonnes were recycled under VinylPlus.
But an issue for the industry is that recycled PVC fetches a lower price on average than in its virgin form.
European consumption of plastics is growing by 5% every year, sparking worries that their environmental impact will get worse.
Europe still landfills or incinerates 60% of its waste, much of it plastic. Burning plastics for fuel comes with its own environmental baggage, as it releases large amounts of CO2 and other chemicals into the air, analysts say.
However, the Commission says that recycling plastic may hold enormous benefits for the European economy, estimating the creation of 15.6 jobs per 1000 tonnes of material processed. A 2010 report by Friends of the Earth predicted that increasing the plastics recycling rate to 70% could create 162,000 new jobs across the EU by 2020.
"Targets are still a useful driver for investment in better waste management, but the real driver leading us towards a circular economy is the economic rationale for treating our waste as a resource," Potočnik said.