European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy: Cradle to Cradle as a solution

Plastic seems to become one of the most relevant global issues in 2018. Shortly after the Chinese government implemented an import ban on 24 different recycled materials, including unsorted plastic waste, waste paper, old CDs and old textiles, the European Commission has published its own strategy paper on dealing with European plastic waste.

The first-ever European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy adopted on January 16, 2018 will transform the way plastic products are designed, used, produced and recycled in the EU. Better design of plastic products, higher plastic waste recycling rates, more and better quality recyclates will help boosting the market for recycled plastics.

Design for recyclability

Too often the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded fails to capture the economic benefits of a more ‘circular’ approach and harms the environment. There is an urgent need to tackle the environmental problems that today cast a long shadow over the production, use and consumption of plastics. But so far, producers of plastic articles and packaging had little or no incentive to take into account the needs of recycling or reuse when they design their products. Plastics are made from a range of polymers and are highly customised, with specific additives to meet each manufacturer’s functional and/or aesthetic requirements. This diversity can complicate the recycling process, make it more costly, and affect the quality and value of recycled plastic.

To support improved design while preserving the internal market, EU action is essential. The Commission will work on a revision of the essential requirements for placing packaging on the market. The objective will be to ensure that, by 2030, all plastics packaging placed on the EU market is reusable or easily recycled. In this context, the Commission will also look into ways of maximising the impact of new rules on Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR), and support the development of economic incentives to reward the most sustainable design choice.

European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy: Cradle to Cradle as a solution

Cradle to Cradle as a solution

Plastic is an integral part of our lives. However, the plastics economy used today is partly unintelligent – and can be dangerous. PET bottles can contain the heavy metal antimony, which is considered carcinogenic. The soda in these bottles contains significantly more antimony than our drinking water. Furthermore, old PET bottles are usually downcycled – to inferior granules, from which toys are made in China.

Due to the new framework of the European Commission, the plastics industry is now responsible to offer solutions. Cradle to Cradle pioneer Frosch has already proven that a transition towards high-quality recycling is possible. For the safe reuse of PET, impurities in the invisible area must be excluded. To sort them according to their purity, modern technologies are needed. Keeping the high-quality PET granules in the recycling system will increase the quality of the recycled material in the long term.

European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy: Cradle to Cradle as a solution

Another alternative is the nylon fabric (e.g. developed by DSM), which is virtually endlessly recyclable and does not need any of the dangerous additives – whether as a plastic bag, water bottle or carpet.

Plastics that can be released into the environment through abrasion must be chemically designed so that they are completely harmless in nature. Research has even developed plastics which, when recycled by cleaning, become cleaner than newly produced substances. Thereby they become more and more valuable.

Key facts on Plastics:

  • Global production of plastics has increased twentyfold since the 1960s, reaching 322 million tons in 2015. It is expected to double again over the next 20 years.
  • In the EU, the plastics sector employs 1.5 million people and generated a turnover of EUR 340 billion in 2015.
  • Around 25.8 million tons of plastic waste are generated in Europe every year. Less than 30% of such waste is collected for recycling.
  • 95 % of the value of plastic packaging material, i.e. between EUR 70 and 105 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a very short first-use cycle
  • plastics production and the incineration of plastic waste give rise globally to approximately 400 million tons of CO2 a year
  • Globally, 5 to 13 million tons of plastics — 1.5 to 4% of global plastics production — end up in the oceans every year.
  • Between 75 000 and 300 000 tons of microplastics are released into the environment each year in the EU.