INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership


The European Commission is putting great store in a strategy to address plastics packaging waste as part of its circular economy package

With growing pressure from governments, environment groups and the public around the world to reduce plastics waste, the concept of the circular economy is finding a resonance with all involved, including the chemical industry.

Producers of plastics, and suppliers of the likes of ethylene, propylene, styrene and monoethylene glycol (MEG) into the polymers chain, need to watch developments closely and may need to adjust their business models accordingly.

The European Commission is taking a leading role in the drive to the circular economy, which seeks to encourage resource efficiency and re-use and recycling, at the same time minimizing the amount of waste produced.

In mid-January this year, the Commission issued an important Communication establishing ‘A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy’. This is the “first-ever” Europe-wide strategy on plastics in what the Commission describes as “a bid to protect the planet, defend its citizens and empower its industries”.

“With the EU Plastics Strategy we are also driving a new and more circular business model. We need to invest in innovative new technologies that keep our citizens and our environment safe whilst keeping our industry competitive.”

Jyrki Katainen, Vice President, European Commission

Under the new plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, with consumption of single-use plastics reduced and the intentional use of microplastics restricted. It has also set a target of 55% for actual recycling by 2030.

Currently, Europeans generate 25 million tons of plastic waste each year, but less than 30% is collected for recycling. European plastics consumption in 2015 was 49 million tons, with 40% going into packaging. Of the total plastics waste generated, 59% was from packaging.

The EU has also committed to making recycling profitable for businesses; to curb plastic waste; to stop littering at sea; to drive investment and innovation, and to spur change across the world.

The Commission stated that the new rules on packaging, alongside a better and standardized system for the separate collection and sorting of waste, will save around €100/tonne of waste collected, delivering greater added value for a more competitive, resilient plastics industry.

PVC and PS/EPS hit hardest

With European legislation having already led to a significant reduction in plastic bag use, the new plans will turn to other single-use plastics.

The imperative to make plastics packaging recyclable is likely to hit lower volume and harder-to-recycle polymers hardest – such as PVC, polystyrene and expanded polystyrene.

On the investment and innovation drive, the Commission says it will provide an “additional €100m financing” for the development of smarter and more recyclable plastic materials, making recycling processes more efficient and tracing and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics.

“If we don’t change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. We must stop plastics getting into our water, our food, and even our bodies,” said the Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development.

Responding to the Communication, the European trade group for plastics producers PlasticsEurope said that plastics manufacturers are still targeting a 60% recycling level for plastics by 2030, slightly higher than the European Commission’s 55% target.

The Commission strategy calls for all plastic packaging on the EU market to be recyclable by 2030. However, PlasticsEurope is not confident that this target can be achieved.

“We, the European plastics manufacturers, are committed to ensure high rates of reuse and recycling with the ambition to reach 60% for plastic packaging by 2030,” a statement from its Executive Director Karl-H. Foerster said.

“This will help achieve our goal of 100% reuse, recycling and recovery of all plastics packaging at European level by 2040.”

Key indicators to monitor progress

The Commission added that, in relation to the plastics strategy, it has adopted a monitoring framework, composed of a set of 10 key indicators which cover each phase of the cycle, which will measure progress towards the transition to a circular economy at EU and national level.

“With our plastic strategy we are laying the foundations for a new circular plastics economy, and driving investment towards it,” said Vice President Jyrki Katainen.

“This will help to reduce plastic litter in land, air and sea while also bringing new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and high quality jobs. This is a great opportunity for European industry to develop global leadership in new technology and materials.”

In a press conference after the release of the new strategy, Katainen confirmed that a potential tax on plastics had been explored but it has yet to find a feasible method of doing so and he is unsure whether one will be found.

“Some of our member states have used fiscal measures to reduce single-use plastic bags and it has functioned well at a national level.

“We are committed to ensure high rates of reuse and recycling… to reach 60% for plastic packaging by 2030”

Karl-H. Foerster, Executive Director, PlasticsEurope

“In the same spirit, we will look at the opportunities, but I have doubts that we’ll find a functioning method to tax plastics,” he added.

“This will help to reduce plastic litter in land, air and sea while also bringing new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and high quality jobs. This is a great opportunity for European industry to develop global leadership in new technology and materials.”

As part of its drive to a circular economy in plastics, the Commission is expected to develop new harmonized rules for the placing on the market of packaging [and] will encourage higher recycling rates by improving the traceability of chemicals in the product itself so that producers have more confidence to use recyclable material.

It is also expected to encourage new eco-design measures so that the way product are designed will to tackle the issue of recyclability. With the new policy, it will also develop quality standards for sorted plastics waste and launch an EU-wide voluntary campaign for enterprises where they can pledge how much they will increase their uptake of recycled plastics by 2030.

The newly elected Executive Director at the EU’s chemical regulator, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), Bjorn Hansen, said in a recent interview with ICIS that the thought of a true circular economy is still distant, given how the currently produced materials are not fully reusable.

“We are definitely not ready today for a circular economy. I can’t give you a numeric value [of when we’d be ready] but I can say it will take decades to get a full circular economy, the reason being that we need to have innovative chemicals enabling the materials that are made from those chemicals to be truly circular,” he said.

Some chemical majors have said they will join forces to create a true circular economic model. Belgium-headquartered Solvay has announced a three-year partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to “explore solutions aligned with the principles of a circular economy, in contrast to today’s linear take-make-dispose” economic model.

Plastics recycling could present producers with the challenge to create new materials which are reusable. Largely used materials in the current packaging industry, like polystyrene, have little prospects to be recyclable.

A major producer within that field, Germany’s chemical major BASF, said recently that the global competitiveness of the European plastics industry must go hand in hand with an enhanced resource efficiency and a strengthened economic philosophy.

Energy recovery also needed

“However, the industry cannot achieve this without the strong support of the EU and its member states. We need a functioning and economic collection of waste without landfill of recyclable plastics in all EU member states.

“We also need the acceptance of energy recovery when a chemical or technical recycling is technically or economically not viable,” according to Klaus Ries, BASF’s Vice President at the Styrenic Foams division.

“Last not least, the industry needs to develop appropriate recycling technologies for all significant plastic materials. One example for such a development is the PS Loop project, where right now a pilot plant is built in the Netherlands by a broad industry initiative, partly supported by public funds, where HBCD [hexabromocyclododecane, a flame retardant] containing EPS [expandable polystyrene] waste will be chemically recycled.”

Michael Riethues, Chairman of the EPS division at EU trade group PlasticsEurope, said that successful recycling of styrenic polymers and polymers in general depends on a mix of regulations, legislative framework and available technology.

Mechanical recycling

“One positive example is the recycling of EPS packaging in Germany, where – according to the results of a Conversio study – already in 2016 about 47% are recycled mechanically and another 51% go into energy recovery,” he said.

Meanwhile, trade group European Bioplastics (EUBP) said the new strategy falls short on presenting a comprehensive approach by limiting the focus of the strategy on mechanical recycling

“Concrete steps towards reducing the dependency on fossil feedstock by linking the circular economy with the bioeconomy and supporting innovative biobased plastics solutions have been further postponed,” the group said.

“Moreover, the contributions of biodegradable plastics to a circular economy are recognized but concrete measures are still missing.”

In relation to the proposed restriction on the use of microplastics, the European Textile and Apparel Confederation (EURATEX), the International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (A.I.S.E.), the European Outdoor Group (EOG), the European Man Made Fibres Association (CIRFS) and the Federation of European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI) have struck an agreement to address their release in the aquatic environment.

The groups said they “agreed that viable solutions need to be found to the release of microplastic into global marine and freshwater” during the entire lifecycle of textiles, which is one of the sources of microplastics.