The ‘plastics problem’: there’s value in waste

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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 Going beyond 90% & exceeding the EU’s 2029 plastic bottle collection target

Waste. It might not be on your mind, but it’s still on your curb side. Packaging waste increased exponentially across Europe throughout the 20th century, making its way to the top of policy agenda across Europe. As the protection of our environment and need for a circular economy becomes a real concern for policymakers and the general public, packaging waste cannot and has not been overlooked. We, as the PET value chain, share those concerns.

The approval of the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) in 2019 marked a turning point for waste management, banning single-use plastic products where sustainable alternatives are easily accessible and affordable. The EU is aiming high and it is clear that the SUPD is designed to eliminate single-use plastic wherever possible.

Far from being single-use, PET beverage bottles are the world’s most collected and recycled plastic packaging and are circular and sustainable by design. Bottle to bottle in a closed loop system, PET can be recycled over and over again. In some countries, the PET industry is already 9 years ahead of the EU’s target with up to 97% of bottles already collected for recycling or reused thanks to industry lead deposit return schemes.

It’s time to think smart about waste

Despite being the sustainable packaging solution, PET accounts for just a small percentage of plastic packaging used in our everyday products. Of all packaging waste, plastic accounts for 30%, with PET packaging constituting 3%, 2% of which is collected for recycling, leaving 1% going to waste. An undue focus on PET bottles means we are ignoring 99% of packaging waste. If more PET was used, the overall plastic recycling rate would substantially increase. The good news is that European PET recyclers have an unused capacity of over 11 billion bottles per year and stand ready to recycle more in a closed loop system.

Getting our bottles back

Increasing collection and recycling is relative to the value you give to a material. PET is light, durable and recyclable; every bottle that is not recycled is a waste of a valuable resource. The missing piece of the puzzle is a regulatory framework that aids recyclers in achieving higher collection and recycling rates. European legislators have the opportunity to create this framework with the upcoming review of The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. As part of it, banning incineration and landfill and introducing smart waste management scheme for PET is key. The latest data for the European region estimates that, on average, two out of every three bottles are currently collected for recycling. Some member states, such as Germany who collect 97% of their PET bottles, have surpassed the EU’s 2029 target already. We understand what works. The industry needs its bottles back: whether through deposit return schemes (DRS), as in Germany, or separate PET curb side collection, like in Belgium, putting in smart waste management systems gives recyclable plastics intrinsic value, ultimately incentivising recycling.

What is PET? Data source: Imperial College (2020), Examining Material Evidence’: The Carbon Fingerprint Report

The carbon question

At the heart of the waste issue is the need for legislation which favours recyclable materials with the smallest carbon footprint. Developing a carbon hierarchy will enable us to promote and prioritise packaging materials that contribute towards driving down emissions – like PET.PET bottles have the lowest carbon footprint compared with alternative packaging materials, especially when recycled. 95% lighter than glass, saving fuel during transport and has a low melting point which reduces production and recycling emissions. Recycled PET reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90%.

Petcore and the entire PET value chain are committed to progress. A collaborative effort between the PET value chain, policymakers and consumers is needed to reach, and go beyond, the EU’s 90% collection target for recyclable plastic packaging by 2029. We want to be part of the effort that moves Europe towards a circular and carbon neutral economy. We continue to innovate the design of our products to facilitate easy recycling.

The PET industry is confident that Europe can achieve and even exceed this target, aiming ultimately for 100% collection. With the right approach, we believe a more sustainable future for packaging is possible. Join our mission to #EndWaste and #RecycleThe1.

The “End Waste. Recycle The 1” campaign is facilitated by PETCORE Europe and the wider PET value chain. To discover more, read our 5-step roadmap to ending PET waste in Europe.

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