Sustainable goals #3: Why is Europe’s drive to cut plastic waste in fast gear?

By 5 July 2021 No Comments
Sustainable goals #3: Why is Europe’s drive to cut plastic waste in fast gear?

Plastic provided many benefits within the linear economy, when John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 came about with the first plastic product inventing the first synthetic polymer. It was in an effort to protect tortoises and elephants and thus our environment. As Hyatt discovered that by treating cotton fiber cellulose with camphor, plastic could be used into a variety of shapes making it a wanted product. In the early stages of the production of plastic a constant review was required of the advantages and disadvantages to avoid negative environmental impacts. However with time and the accelerating advantages provided by plastic, these constant reviews faded quickly.

Originally plastics were seen as a sustainable solution as it was not meant as single use, but to the contrary for reuse due to its long lifespan. Practioners and researchers at the time promoted the fact that when a PVC pipe is well maintained, for instance it can provide service up to a century. Another example would be construction plastics which last for up to +30 years. The mindset at that time was to continue not to single-using, hence promoting an immediate lower waste rate which contributed to the reduction of plastic usage. Nowadays, we know that 80% of all marine debris found in oceans and land contains plastic.

In todays’ world we can find plastics almost everywhere, it is a global solution to many of our challenges, such as securing food supply for consumers, allowing society to have access to clean water and effective sewage systems, global connectivity, renewable energies as well as affordable and hygienic healthcare. Furthermore, China the biggest plastic manufacturer benefits from the fact that oil price is cheap as producing plastics can be energy-intensive with fossil fuels. However manufacturers point out that it is still more environmentally friendly than other materials, such as bamboo which provides natural fibers to use, but need intense chemical processes to turn it into something useable same goes for aluminum. Often plastic is chosen over organic materials as even if it releases greenhouse emissions when decomposing, it doesn’t emit methane while breaking down. In fact, compared to CO2 is 20 times more potent as a reflecting atmospheric product, it also means it is easier to calculate the total lifecycle impact of most plastic product.

The economical impact of Plastic is global across sectors and industries as direct production costs are kept down for a variety of items. The established linear manufacturing production processes create several million tons of this material used for a multitude of purposes, ranging from packaging to straws. Due to the daily use of plastic embedded into our daily life it, created a plastic industry worth over €350 billion in 2019 in the E.U. only and employing 1.5 million people.

The recycling costs of plastic makes it less attractive to step away from a linear production mentality and instead makes it easier to let it decompose into landfills for instance. This clearly sheds light on underdevelopped global waste management and recycling systems, as of today only 8.6 percent circular out of the 100 billion tons of resources that were used in the global economic system in 2020 according to the Circularity Gap Report. Meaning that in order to have a true impact on our global economy, circular economy must be scaled up globally as it is key to fight climate change, protect our environment as well as to preserve the world’s limited natural resources.

On the other hand, an efficient implementation of solid and sustainable waste management systems solution(s) needs a major transition and an in-depth paradigm shift within our society and economy to a circular thinking. Prompting for a far greater supply of green energy, a real boost into recycling, changing focus back to the multi-use mindset that was orginally core to the production of plastics.

Technological solutions can help together with commitment of governments and the civil society to create a truly climate-neutral and sustainable world The window of opportunity for our environment, health and economy is opening up more and more. The E.U. aims to become the leader in the global fight against marine litter and plastic pollution, thus turning to new rules and regulations and the implementation of taxes and penalties.

However, Europes’ drive in cutting plastics waste is not only a proactive move, but very much the consequences of 85% of the European continent’s saltwater beaches and seas exceeding pollution standards on marine litter, with the Mediterranean Sea scoring the highest in pollution per 100 meters. Hence, the European Union needs to make drastic changes. Indeed by instoring a ban on July 3rd 2021, that halts the sale in E.U. markets of the 10 most common plastic products that wash up on the continent’s shores (plastic bottle caps, cutlery, straws, plates, styrofoam food, beverage containers...), the E.U. sends a clear and visible message regarding its efforts to curtail plastics pollution. A large number of E.U. measures have been announced and will be implemented systematically across members states which already now is driving investments and innovation toward circular solutions; this shift according to experts and EU officials will help the E.U. reaching its low-carbon economy while at the same time enhancing its global competitiveness.

While most manufacturers/producers and consumers across sectors and industries are not realizing that these measures are in place and will be intensified until 2025 (recycling target 2025: 50% of plastic packaging); the reality is that the “E.U. Plastics Strategy” was already put forward 4 years ago in 2018 and it contains waste guidelines ranging from how plastic products are designed, how they are used up to its recycling with as main goal that all plastic packaging in the E.U. must be recyclable by 2030 and the use of microplastics heavily restricted by then.

The E.U. knows that a real behavioural shift needs to happen and that awareness regarding plastics and its entire life cycle should be better communicated. Thus their strategy is not only based on circularity, but on responsibility from the creators of plastics in the first place. Explicitly, this means that when a manufacturer introduces packaging or packaged goods into a European country market, that manufacturer remains responsible for the total cost(s) of collection, transportation, recycling or incineration of its created product, following the logic that the polluter should be the one paying. This is aligned with the fact that plastics takes a long time to decompose compared to organic materials (daily grocery plastics bag takes up to 20 years to decompose naturally).

Today, we are still facing the issue that many types of commonly used plastic packaging are not recyclable and are being dumped into landfills, incinerated or exported without verification of recycling, urging for better waste management and a global roadmap regarding plastics. It is still quite a challenge as plastics that have cross-contamination with different types create unusable products. Constantly underestimated while boosting recycling initiatives, is that some plastic products contain different plastic types within the same item (a bottle and a lid...), same applies with the fact the items needs to be cleaned before recyclers can turn the plastics components into new useful purposes.

Indeed, only 5% of plastic packaging’s value currently cicrulating in the European market remains in the economy after its first use. This costs the E.U. members states between €70 and €105 billion per year. To shorten the loop, as many as possible plastic materials and products should be used as long as possible or refurbished into a different item. These challenges will be adressed as recycling and repair/refurbish facilities will expand rapidly making plastic waste become more valuable and thus pushing for greater and more efficient investments.

Initiatives such as that of the European Plastics Pact (E.P.P.) contribute to the acceleration of tackling plastic waste in Europe. This initiative was started by the Netherlands and France, but is composed now of +80 other organisations, such asgovernments, companies, non-governmental organisations and business associations from across the E.U. The aim is to reach 4 goals – (1) circular design, (2) responsible use, (3) recycling capacity and (4) the use of recycled content. To reach their goals they use their unique platform to share ideas, display good practices and discuss challenges, all that is needed to build a new circular roadmap in Europe for everbybody.

Such initiatives understand that collaboration across Europe is necessary, especially when 2025 is not just a target but, the first milestone prompting a separate collection target of 77% for plastic bottles reaching 90% by 2029. As well, a directive was adopted in 2019 by all member states to integrate a minimum of 25% recycled plastic in clear plastic bottles by 2025 to attain the 30% in all plastic beverage bottles by 2030. This minimum is already in place on the Scandinavian peninsula and Germany adding real value to plastic waste, since producers across sectors and industires need it and will pay for it. Indeed, the extended producer responsibility laws (ERP) already exist in Europe with Germany being the country where companies pay the highest fees to finance the transports, sorting and recycling of their waste end-materials.

All of this creates a demand for high-quality recycling material and thus helping transforming one of the biggest yearly economical loss into new markets of opportunities for Europe. Not to mention the E.U.’s ambitious climate target of reducing greenhouse emissions by 55%, below 1990 levels, by 2030. That is why a “Ban” is such a visible and strong set of measures, as the European Commission aims not only to reduce plastic waste, but to simultaneously reduce 3.4 Million tons in CO2 emissions that steam from the industry. Notable is that by making production processes more sustainable and reusing products the E.U. will save over €6.5 billion.

There are even more measures circulating within the European Green Deal to limit plastics and making circularity the cornerstone principle of E.U.’s plastics economy - measures most Europeans are not even aware of.

An overwiew of the “Ban”:

Ban on single-use plastics from 2021

If you don’t want to land your business in the soup, be ready to stop using and selling your products in single-use plastic containers by 3 July 2021. The ban includes straws, cups, cutlery, plates, but also balloon rods.

Deposit on bottles from 2021

In the Netherlands the government is taking further steps to fight plastics waste. From July 1st 2021, a deposit of €0.15 cents will be in place for plastic drink bottles containing less than 1 liter, using the ERP scheme and obligating the producers of the bottles for the introduction of the deposit system. The Hospitality industry and small businesses do not have to collect the bottles.

Deposit on bottles from 2022

The Netherlands further will extend its initiative and by December 31st 2022: soda, water, and beer cans will also carry a €0.15 cents deposit. How and where these cans will be collected is unknown at the moment.


Team Greenable.

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