The place for plastics in a zero-emission economy The place for…

Recycling of plastic packaging must improve in the EU. Still, the real problem is not plastics themselves, but their appropriate use and waste management. This is the conclusion from the discussion at the webinar organized by Euractiv Poland titled “A New Paradigm for Plastics and Their Role in the EU’s Zero-Emission Economy Plans”.

Most recent studies show that the extraction and processing of natural resources are responsible for half of the total emission of greenhouse gases and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water scarcity at the global level. Unfortunately, for now, it looks like the situation is going to further worsen. In the next 40 years, the use of natural resources will double, while the global amount of waste is going to increase by 70%.

Moreover, plastics currently account for 80-85% of the waste in the marine environment of the European Union, and single-use items made from plastics make up half of it.

Plastics are least-recycled

In Poland alone, the current demand for plastics amounts to 3.5 million tonnes per year. Across the EU, people produce 25 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly. Less than 30% is recycled. For comparison, 31% of plastic waste is landfilled and 39% is incinerated.

The leader of recycling plastic packaging is Lithuania, where according to Eurostat 74% are recycled. Next are Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Slovenia. The worst are the statistics in Estonia, Finland, and France, where only 27% of plastic packages are recycled.

The situation will not change as long as we do not change our way of consuming and processing waste, especially plastic waste. What is optimistic, in many places in the world and also in the EU the discussion has started on what measures should be taken to prevent a black scenario and how the question of plastics influences the environment and climate in a wide sense.

The EU has its first binding goals on recycling

The EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius stressed during the debate that “the best currently accessible way of dealing with plastics is recycling”.

“It has a lot of assets, for example, it makes us less dependent on imported natural resources, which in turn increases our resilience for crises. The pandemic has reminded us how important it is,” he said.

In 2019 the EU adopted a directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, which did not only defined the term for such product but also imposed on the Member States the obligements related to the plastics, like adopting laws (e.g. introducing additional fees) enforcing the limitation on the use of disposable plastic cups or plastic packages.

Disposable plastics will disappear soon

What is more, until 2025 PET bottles produced in the EU will have to consist of no less than 25% from recycled plastics. Until 2030 it is going to be 30%.

“The market has already reacted to that, and the prices of drinks in such bottles have increased. But bottles are only the beginning. We will propose other obligements concerning the recycling of plastic packaging, as well as recycling plastics in automotive and construction industries,” said the EU commissioner.

In 2018 the European Commission has set a goal to make half of plastic packaging recyclable, and until 2030 – even 55%. The 2019 directive, apart from the goals mentioned above, imposes an obligation for proper labeling of disposable plastic products, waste separation, and the appropriate education of consumers.

The Member States are also to create, on the basis of EU’s guidelines, legal regulations concerning the bigger responsibility of producers, not only those of plastic cups or packages but also of plastic bacs, tobacco, and hygiene products.

A substantial change is also the obligement to withdraw from the market until July 3, 2021, a part of disposable plastic products, including cutlery, plates, cotton buds, or sticks for balloons, but also cups and packages made of expanded polystyrene (EPS).

The problem is not the plastics themselves, but their proper use

The participants of the debate stressed that the problem does not concern plastics as such. “I think it is simply a material of specific properties, which differ it from other materials. We decide whether we use them in a good or bad way. Therefore we should rather talk about how we use plastics”, said director of Zero Waste Europe Joan Marc Simon.

He pointed out that the use of plastic may actually have a positive influence on the natural environment, as plastic products or packages are light, which allows transporting more of them at once and in such a way contribute less to air pollution.

“But of course plastics mean also great challenges. One example is chemical additives used in its production that have a serious influence on our health. Today we do not understand this influence well enough. As yet, we know that it is there. We have to continue the research on the properties of plastics,” he said.

The expert also stressed the need to use reusable plastic products and prolonging the plastics’ life by recycling them. “Unfortunately, today the majority of plastics is not collected and recycled. Consequently, it permeates to the natural environment, and then to our bodies. And I think we all agree that this is not where the plastics should end up”, said Simon.

He underlined that the plastic waste collection system based on the producers’ requirements and the actions of municipal services has its restrictions, as in this system it is only possible to collect about 30% of waste and recycle even less.

“The goal of selective collection of 90% plastic waste set by the European Commission is a step in a good direction. But we will have to improve the overall waste collection system and to do this we must engage the citizens. Research shows that people will be more eager to take packages of all sorts to the appropriate places if they are provided with necessary conditions for that – the appropriate number of collection centers and some economic incentives”, Simon said.

Producers see the problem

Managing Director of Plastics Europe Virginia Janssens pointed to the need to raise awareness on the scale of the challenges related to de-carbonization, plastics circulation, and waste management.

She assured that the plastics sector is “rightly proud of its comprehensiveness and social utility of products, but it is also engaged in a pro-environmental activity and it contributes significantly to the solution of the problem of waste”.

“We are pleased to see progress on waste collection. We want to implement long-term, sustainable solutions. Innovations are in our DNA. We observe the implementation of more technologies that facilitate recycling. I have in mind, for instance, chemical recycling that the industry more and more invest in. But there are also new infrastructure projects, changes in business models, or new projecting methods”, said Janssens.

However, she added, we need some more time for these innovative changes to fully enter the production cycle. “We are also a part of the value chain, so we closely cooperate with all its participants and decision-makers. We do everything we can for plastics to become more circular so that we can implement in Europe the consecutive elements of circular economy”, she assured.

She also reminded that Plastics Europe is a leading member of the Circular Plastics Alliance initiative, a high-level platform set up by the European Commission, which creates an alliance of key stakeholders from the sector embracing the whole value chain of plastics, from waste collectors to recyclers and from primary producers to processors, brand owners and retailers, having in mind both the packaging sector and automotive and construction sectors.