European innovators ready to lead change on plastic waste

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The EU’s Plastics Strategy will significantly increase demand for circular business models and greener products. The EIT’s Climate KIC is working with European innovators to seize the business opportunity this creates, and support them in getting from visionary idea to profitable activity, write Elléa Lhermite and Piotr Pogorzelski.

Elléa Lhermite is EU Affairs project officer with EIT Climate-KIC. Piotr Pogorzelski is the communications manager, Sustainable Production Systems, EIT Climate-KIC.

In the words of Austria’s federal minister of sustainability and tourism, Elisabeth Köstinger: “The EU takes action to restrict the use of certain throwaway plastic products for which good plastic-free alternatives exist. And we will make plastic producers pay for cleaning up.”

Ms Köstinger did not mince her words when presenting the proposal carried by the Austrian EU Presidency for a Single-Use Plastics Directive at the end of last year.

The proposed Directive was welcomed by stakeholders as a crucial first step in the EU’s efforts to combat pollution from plastic waste and has since then sailed through the various approval stages towards its entry into force. The European Parliament is due to approve the text this month in plenary session.

A relatively short list of products will be banned from the EU market by 2021 and EU Member States will take the necessary measures to achieve a measurable quantitative reduction in the consumption of takeaway food containers and plastic cups for beverages.

Although more needs to be done to close the plastics loop, the legislative proposal sends an important signal to businesses on where the EU is heading. For many European start-ups and larger industrial players, this represents a whole new market opportunity for the products and services that they have been developing for many years, even before the proposal was tabled.

With new provisions aiming at promoting plastic waste prevention and increasing recyclability of plastic products, the demand for circular business models and greener products which meet these targets is likely to increase significantly – creating vast opportunities for businesses already active in these fields.

This will be a key topic of discussion during the Circular Economy Stakeholder conference kicking off this week in Brussels. But although such businesses are slowly emerging, they need support to get from visionary idea to profitable activity.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) Climate-KIC works with start-ups and established corporates to enable the transition to a circular economy through a systemic approach, by funding complementary innovations in various fields. Its eCircular flagship programme aims at fostering new industrial models by supporting pilot projects which rethink and disrupt our relationship to plastics at both production and consumption levels. Essentially, eCircular provides a real-life laboratory for the EU’s plastics ambitions.

The start-ups and enterprises supported by the EIT Climate-KIC prioritise waste prevention by making the most of existing material flows. They seek for example to increase circularity in industrial parks through a web-based tool, or to track products during their lifecycle using blockchain.

The Recycl3R start-up has already developed a mobile and web application providing recyclability information to end-users on products and packaging. Other innovative endeavours look at reusing and remanufacturing plastics to extend their material lifecycle.

A start-up called Refurbed, recently featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30, has created an online platform offering refurbished electronics to achieve product life extension. In terms of weight, total plastic resin usage in all cell phones represented 336,000 metric tons in 2017.

It is estimated that 49 million tons of plastic were used in the EU in 2015 for packaging, building and construction, automotive, or electronics. Currently, less than 40 per cent of plastics is recycled.

eCircular is closing the loop on these plastic materials and dematerialising of plastic demand, with the vision of reaching a carbon-neutral material system by 2050.

The Single Use Plastics Directive is an important first step towards a more conscious use of plastic. Although more should be done by European and national policy-makers, it is now also up to businesses, accompanied by EIT Climate-KIC, to assume the mantle.

To find out more about our pilot projects visit https://ecircular.climate-kic.org/

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