LONDON (ICIS)--EU petrochemical sources have embraced the drive for more recycling but figureheads like the European chemical regulator’s executive director conceded a true circular economy is still a distant thought.
The European Commission published on 16 January its very first Europe-wide strategy for plastics, which called for all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030, while also expressing aims to reduce the use of single-use plastics and restrict use of microplastics.
An EU source told ICIS that the aim of the programme is to “improve the economics and the quality of plastics recycling” so that by 2030 there will be a target for all plastic packaging on the market to be either reused or recycled “in a cost-effective” manner.
The source added that the EU is willing to “try and help the industry” make the transition, although trade group PlasticsEurope said on 16 January, following the Commission’s announcement, that it only expects 60% of plastic packaging to be reused or recycled by 2030.
“We will have new harmonised rules for the placing on the market of packaging [and] to encourage higher recycling rates, we will improve the traceability of chemicals in the product itself so that they give more confidence in the producers to use recyclable material,” said the EU source.
“There will be new eco-design measures so on the way you design the product to tackle the issue of recyclability. With the new package, we will develop quality standards for sorted plastics waste. We will 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. On Wednesday, Belgium-headquartered Solvay 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 to ICIS this week that the global competitiveness of the European plastics industry must go hand in hand with an enhanced resource efficiency and a strengthened economic philosophy.
"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," said 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.”
As the world comes to realise how much of a problem plastic waste has become, with news bulletins bombing viewers with large swathes of plastic in the oceans, the EU’s package is also aiming to tackle that problem.
“The other main measure is to curb the plastic waste and littering. There will be a restriction on microplastics – a ban on intentionally added micro plastics in products like cosmetics,” said the EU source, who added the 28-country bloc is examining a potential plastics tax.
“It’s a bit early to tell what shape or form it will take, but it’s one of the financial instruments that we are looking in to.”
The source said that consumers currently lack information of the several substances contained in the products, adding the EU is also mulling to introduce measures to improve the labelling and definition for plastics.
“We need plastics, plastic is everywhere. The idea is just to make it more recyclable and reusable. It’s not like a war on the industry, it is more trying to make the shift [to a circular economy].”
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.
“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 bio-based plastics solutions have been further postponed,” the group said.
“Moreover, the contributions of biodegradable plastics to a circular economy are recognised 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.
Pictured: Sorting chain of a recycling site for household waste in France
Focus article by Niall Swan
Additional reporting by Ben Lake, Jonathan Lopez, Vasiliki Parapouli and Pavle Popovic