Blurry merry-go-round spinning with people riding it

Merry go round

Plastic oceans showing the gravity of the problem

Plastic waste is forecast to triple globally by 2060 (i.e. 238 kg/a/person in OECD, 77 kg/a/person in non-OECD countries), with half of it ending up in landfill and only a fifth being recycled, according to an OECD report published in June 2022 1 . This comes as a result of rising population and incomes driving an almost threefold increase in plastics use (from 460 Mt in 2019 to 1,230 Mt in 2060). Two thirds of the waste will come from short-lived items, e.g. packaging, low-priced products and textiles. Lately, microplastic leakages from, e.g. industrial plastic pellets, textiles and tyres have also drawn attention to a potentially serious problem for ecosystems.

Despite the rise in the share of recycled plastic waste, from 9% in 2019 to 17% in 2060, the increased use of recycled plastics, as well as technological advances and sectoral economic shifts resulting in a 16% decrease in the amount of plastic required to create USD 1 of economic output by 2060, plastic consumption and waste are expected to surge.

School of fish swimming by heaps of plastic waste underwater

Moreover, commitments to climate neutrality and the shift away from fossils for geopolitical and environmental reasons put pressure on plastics use. Swift action is needed to control demand, increase product lifecycles as well as improve recyclability and waste management. In spring 2022, UN member states pledged to negotiate a legally binding agreement by 2024 to end plastic pollution.

Roundabout traffic sign that associates with circularity

Circular economy driven regulation prefers recycling

Policies to reduce the environmental impact and support the circular use of plastics include taxes, e.g. on plastic packaging, fit-for-purpose eco-design rules, incentives to reuse/repair, targets for recycled content in products and extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. Owing to the interaction between the plastics lifecycle, fossil fuels and climate change, actions to reduce GHG emissions could also cut plastic pollution.

In a move away from the linear production model, the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) aims to reduce waste generation in the first place, or exempt some products designed for re-use.

Under the SUPD, plastic drink bottles must contain at least a quarter of recycled material by 2025 and 30% by 2030. As the EU is pushing its circular economy ambitions via waste management legislation and the Single-Use Plastics Directive, the plastics and chemicals industry is increasingly trying to place chemical recycling methods on the European and global policy agenda.

The European Commission’s review of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive is to be published on 30 November 2022 as part of the second circular economy package. The revision of the Directive is likely to contain specific minimum recycled content targets for a range of packaging types. Moreover, the proposal will outline a policy framework for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics. The industry lobby Plastics Europe has also called for a 30% recycled content requirement, revolving largely around chemical recycling and a mass balance approach to account for the recycled content. The industry plans to invest EUR 7.2 billion in chemical recycling by 2030.

Blurry view of an amusement park ride spinning in circular motion

Regulations and consumer preferences

Legislation, combined with voluntary undertakings by brand owners, not only in the food and beverage but also in the textile industry, has resulted in a steadily growing demand for recycled plastics. Consequently, the trade association UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe and groups representing fruit juice and mineral water firms are pushing for a closed-loop system to prevent food-grade plastic from being downcycled by other sectors looking to boost their green credentials. Other alternatives, such as plastic substitution by fibre-based packaging and reusable alternatives for packaging, exist, but plastic recycling will play a role in the years to come.

Increased activism on the part of consumers in ending plastic pollution has very recently taken the form of a lawsuit, as ClientEarth, together with 13 other environmental organisations, filed their claim against INEOS in July 2022 to appeal the approval of its EUR 3 billion plastics plant project in the Port of Antwerp, Belgium. The idea is to change the modus operandi of the whole plastic industry.

Availability of sorted plastic waste

In 2020, almost 30 million tonnes of plastic post-consumer waste was collected in Europe, with one third sent to recycling facilities. Based on Plastics Europe, the installed recycling capacity in Europe in 2020 was 9.6 million tonnes, which experienced an increase of 1.1 million tonnes the same year, supported by the EU's ambitious recycling targets and brand owner initiatives – particularly in the packaging sector.

However, despite the efforts to increase recycling capacity, the industry has been running at lower capacities citing the reduced availability of sorted plastic waste. Recyclers have been highlighting the gap in the supply of sorted waste and calling for collection practices and infrastructure that can ensure stable feedstock quantities with improved qualities.

Collection of recycled plastic bottles that serve as reusable material

The infrastructure: collection and sorting

In 2020, one quarter of plastic waste was sent to landfills – a significant loss of resources that could be collected and recycled. Municipal waste collection and recycling rates vary greatly between EU member states, from 67% in Germany to 9% in Malta.

Increasing consumer awareness, introducing extended producer responsibility schemes to improve waste management in the region, separate collection schemes for targeted plastic waste streams such as packaging, efficient sorting infrastructure for municipal residual waste and landfill restrictions are some of the proven pathways to address both the difference between member states and to improve the collection and recycling rates where it is already high.

As the output quality depends highly on the quality of the plastic waste, investing in advanced mechanical recycling and sorting technologies and introducing deposit return schemes will aid in increasing the sorting efficiency, and produce higher recycling yields with higher-quality output material.

Wildlife monkey eating food from plastic bag amid litter close to garbage truck in city
Children recycling plastic bottles and other waste

Towards successful circularity

Chemical recycling of plastic waste, where mechanical recycling is not a solution, can be a strong tool to improve both recycling rates and the quality of the output material. In Europe, plastics manufacturers plan billions of euros in investments until 2030 to accelerate the development and deployment of chemical recycling technologies.

Establishing policy frameworks and clear guidelines for a mass balance approach, which is a set of rules for determining the use of recycled content in a final product, are critical matters to be clarified before chemical recycling can become mainstream.

Infographic showing key insights of European future plastics recycling
Waste in ocean image

Bioindustry Management Consulting

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Idil Akture - Consultant, AFRY Management Consulting

Idil Akture

Consultant, AFRY Management Consulting

Idil joined AFRY Management Consulting in 2017. She is an experienced consultant with strategic involvement in numerous projects on mechanical and advanced recycling of plastics, bio-based products including biofuels and biochemicals, climate neutrality analysis, value-chain creation, technology review and pre-feasibility and market entry strategies for various industries. She holds an MSc (Tech) in chemical engineering from Aalto University, Finland.

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Karina Puurunen - Manager, AFRY Management Consulting

Karina Puurunen

Manager, AFRY Management Consulting

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This article was originally published in the Autumn 2022 Bioindustry edition of AFRY Insights.