Plastic waste: how to square the circle

Chemical recycling will need to emit less than manufacturing with virgin materials to be considered 'green' [Michael Coghlan / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Plastic waste management.

The EU’s circular economy plan aims to halve municipal waste in the next decade by increasing recycling rates. Can companies boost the use of recycled plastics in time to meet the target?

Plastic has a bad reputation these days. From bags to straws to bottles, the push has been to phase out the use of plastic materials and replace it with something else. But this has seen varied consumer acceptance.

Though carrying cloth bags to the grocery store has now become normalised, people have been less enthusiastic about uncomfortable paper straws and heavy glass bottles.

The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0, adopted earlier this year to update existing plans taking into account the Green Deal, lays out a plan for a new sustainable product policy that will make sure products placed on the EU market are designed to last longer, be easier to reuse, repair and recycle, and incorporate as much recycled material as possible instead of primary materials.

Cloth, paper and metal obviously fit the bill. But given the limits to their acceptability, research is going in to how to make out everyday plastics more sustainable.

“The overarching goal is to really rethink the way we are using our packaged goods, the best solution isn’t to just change from a plastic to a paper straw but to change to a reusable straw where it’s feasible,” said Joachim Quoden, managing director of EXPRA, an alliance of European extended producer responsibility schemes.

“Then of course for the rest of the packaging where it’s not feasible, we need to make them recyclable.”

“Just to bash plastics is not the useful way forward for our society seeing the daily needs of people,” he added.

“Is it always beneficial to change from plastic to other material? I don’t know. Industry is always using plastic for many purposes – to avoid food waste for example. So I think we have to stop any ideological fighting on this but to come back to science and understand what makes sense and what is more ideology.”

In 2018 the European Commission launched a circular plastics alliance, with an initial pledge of reaching 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics used in products by 2025. There are currently 245 signatories – both public authorities and private businesses. But there are two major hurdles to reaching this goal: regulatory obstacles and technical challenges.

Undeveloped market

The goal is to have companies use less virgin plastic materials in their packaging and more secondary recycled plastic. But at the moment, the cost incentives aren’t motivating companies to switch over to the latter. “Recycled PET [Polyethylene terephthalate] is right now two times the cost of virgin PET,” said Gabriel Thoumi, head of the plastics programme at Planet Tracker, a think-tank that has been looking at plastic manufacturing.

As a consequence, investment is still going into building new virgin plastic facilities.

“It’s a race to the bottom. Who else is expanding capacity? China, India, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. As these countries are starting to expand their capacity, you have overcapacity developing in the market. You still have profit margins below current averages,” said Thoumi.

“So why are investors deploying capital into a losing market, into the products of the past? Why not just deploy the capital into building the products of the future, on chemical recycling infrastructure and improved waste management?” he asked.

The result is that the disposable plastic items you use every day are most likely still virgin. “Currently less than half of plastic packaging waste is recycled, with most of it going to landfill or incineration,” said Laura Degallaix, director for environmental sustainability at industry association FoodDrinkEurope.

“Recycling is an economically marginal activity. And there is currently not the investment into infrastructure and technology to solve this problem.”

Jan Huitema, the member of the European Parliament responsible for the circular economy file, said he is including in his report proposed regulatory changes that would try to fix this incentives problem.

“In our report, we’re mentioning several possible ways to overcome this. Products need to have a mandatory amount of recycled material that would increase demand for secondary raw materials. The other is public procurement. We set criteria that recycled content should have priority and governments shouldn’t only look for the lowest price.”

Another option, he says, would be ‘CO2 rewarding’: a carbon pricing scheme could be set up to reward companies for using more recycled content in their packaging. “You then ask the question, how do you measure this? That’s something we are mentioning also in our report. It’s key to have good indicators using lifecycle analysis.”

Recycling chemically

The other hurdle is technical. Some think that mechanical recycling of plastics has reached its natural limit, particularly when looking at the profit incentives for operating these plants.

But recently, new advances in chemical recycling are being seriously looked at as an alternative that could greatly boost the level of recycling, because it would provide a much more interesting profit incentive.

Speaking at a EURACTIV event last week, Cristina de Avila, head of unit for sustainable chemicals at the European Commission, said the EU executive is very much interested in this technology.

“We welcome innovations in this field. Chemical recycling seems to be a great opportunity to deal with all the unrecycled plastics. But there are still a lot of challenges to deal with. We need more information on the environmental performance of these technologies, and also what is the actual yield of the processes back to plastic. Also a lifecycle approach needs to be followed. Chemical recycling is a last resort.”

The technique holds the promise of isolating toxic substances contained in plastics, which are now banned in Europe, making it possible to retrieve feedstocks that can be used to manufacture products which are as good as new.

“All chemicals can be broken down to simpler building blocks and made into the same or different chemicals again, even if they are heavily mixed or contaminated,” said a recent white paper by the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

But there are still some major safety concerns. “It’s very important that the supply chain from consumers to recyclers to producers should have clear info on all the identity of the chemicals in the products,” said Jesus Urios, a policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy.

“This is a requirement in order to properly be able to maintain quality in recycled materials. At the end of the day, if consumers or producers don’t think a recycled material is going to be as good as a virgin raw material, then the circular economy won’t happen probably.”

Huitema said the safety concerns need to be dealt with urgently because of the enormous potential for chemical recycling to overcome the existing price and quality concerns about secondary plastics.

“Look at soda PET bottles. At the moment they’re recycled mechanically, but at some point, the bottles, especially transparent ones, get polluted too much and aren’t transparent any more, they get a brown colour and that’s not nice. But with chemical recycling, you can purify that again.”

There are already a number of industry initiatives trying to get a handle on this issue. Last week, Pepsi committed to eliminate all virgin plastic from its bottles sold in nine EU market by 2022.

The plastics will instead come from post-consumer packaging (recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or ‘rPET’). The company estimates that this will eliminate over 70,000 tonnes of virgin, fossil-fuel based plastic per year, and will lower carbon emissions per bottle by approximately 40%.

But to meet the goal of these emerging strategies, everyone in the value chain is going to have to figure out a way to make recycling more efficient and the use of secondary materials more enticing. Otherwise, the cost of more sustainability will have to be passed on to the consumer – and companies will still be hesitant to take the first step.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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