At the end of January 2021, the European Environment Agency (EAA) published a report on how European countries can create a greener circular system for plastics.
Plastic packaging is the largest sector of the plastics industry, accounting for nearly 40% of total plastic consumption. Among other things, plastics provide new transport solutions for the logistics sector, and they are important for improving hygiene in healthcare (for example, to protect against viruses) and for reducing food waste by keeping food fresh for longer. Plastics are also used in cars and aircraft to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency, in synthetic fibers in clothing and other textiles, and more.
If plastics use continues to grow as projected, the plastics industry is expected to account for 20% of global oil consumption by 2050, up 7% from today. The International Energy Agency predicts that plastics and other petrochemicals will be the main driver of oil demand growth until 2030 (OECD and IEA, 2018). On average, 2.7 tonnes of CO2 are emitted for every ton of plastic burned (excluding potential carbon savings from energy source change) (Material Economics, 2019). The total amount of plastic waste incinerated in the EU is uncertain, but it is estimated at 20-30 million tonnes annually (Material Economics, 2019). This means that total CO2 emissions from plastics incineration in the EU will be around 50-80 Mtpa.
As a major component of the European Green Deal, the new Circular Economy Action Plan (EC, 2020), launched by the European Commission in March 2020, presents a series of policy initiatives that will help move the EU towards a circular economy.
Building on the efforts of the EU Plastics Strategy, the Action Plan targets plastics as a key production chain. It contains specific commitments to develop binding requirements for recycled content and waste reduction measures for selected products, to limit the presence of microplastics in the environment, to establish a policy framework for bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics, and to ensure timely implementation of the Disposable Directive. plastics (EU, 2019; EU, 2020).
The study notes that through policies, business models and consumer actions, one way to achieve a circular plastics cycle is to use plastics smarter. It aims to reduce the use of unnecessary plastics by ensuring that the right plastic is used for the right purpose. It also discusses how best to replace plastics with more resource efficient materials when cost effective and feasible. And instead of relying on technical solutions such as better recycling systems, this path aims to smarterly reduce the projected growth curve for plastic production and consumption. As part of this journey, the report highlights seven recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Council of European Academies on the transformation of plastics systems. These include a ban on the export of plastic waste to third countries, the adoption of a target to prevent the disposal of plastic waste in landfills, minimization of consumption and disposable use, and the introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.
The second way to a sustainable closed plastics cycle is to increase the “closed” cycle. The main goal of the “increased isolation” path is the transition from a linear economy to a circular economy in which the value and usefulness of plastics are maintained in closed cycles.
The third way is the use of renewable raw materials. The driving factor towards renewable raw materials is the reduction in the amount of plastics produced from fossil fuels. The report highlights the dependence of the plastics sector on fossil raw materials and the implications of this in terms of energy and resource security. The solutions that this path offers include a focus on separating plastics from fossil raw materials by switching to renewable raw materials in line with broader EU action on climate change and bioeconomy.
The benefits will translate into reduced dependence on imports and fossil resources, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated rural development. The main driving force behind this progress is the new Circular Economy Action Plan, which will develop a policy framework for bioplastics-based plastics.
Each of the three pathways affects different stages of the plastics value chain, as well as different impacts on the environment and climate. For each path, the report explores the problems it tries to solve, the types of solutions it promotes, its limitations, and opportunities for further action.
According to the report, only a combination of the three described paths provides a way forward in the longer term. Smarter use focuses on production and use to address environmental leakage and toxicity issues, with less focus on climate change impacts.
Increasing the “closed loop” of the cycles aims to integrate the entire value chain to improve the closed loop for plastics. However, closed plastic economy initiatives often fail to account for the growing consumption or dependence of plastics on fossil resources.
The use of renewable materials is aimed at reducing the amount of fossil raw materials in plastics, but at the same time this path does not focus on their use and waste management. Switching to renewable materials alone will not solve the problem.