Circular Economy, Sustainability, Recycling

Plastics supporting a circular economy and combating climate change

01/12/2021 | 4 min read
Konrad Wasserbauer

German plastics industry publishes nine demands aimed at advancing a circular economy

The plastics industry in Germany is committed to combating climate change. This was confirmed in a joint position paper published in October, which sets out a series of requests and demands directed at policymakers and lawmakers. The trade groups responsible for the document hope to stimulate open dialogue and discussion around innovations and sustainable developments in the plastics industry in order to move toward a circular economy. In the process, the parties involved are also deepening their collaboration and pooling their expertise.

The nine demands in brief:

  1. Design products with recyclability in mind
  2. Improve separated collection and sorting, unlock the potential of digital transformation
  3. End environmental dumping caused by exporting used plastics
  4. Stop sending used plastics to landfill throughout the EU
  5. Mechanical and chemical recycling processes can complement one another
  6. Ways to increase recycled content in plastic products
  7. Put the necessary conditions in place to support the use of recycled materials
  8. Promote investment in the circular economy
  9. Take action to protect the environment from plastic waste

The transition to a circular economy will mean major changes in the way plastic products are manufactured, used, and recycled in the future. For this transformative process to be a success, a clear commitment to an open approach to technology and innovation and a legal environment in which investments can be made are required at European level.

We are convinced that this is the only way to safeguard resources and prosperity in our society for the long term. Recycled plastics can provide the materials our society needs today and will continue to need in the future.

Konrad Wasserbauer, global circular economy director at Greiner Packaging

The packaging experts put extensive work into the industry’s position paper, resulting in nine demands aimed at accelerating the transition to a circular economy.

Product design is fundamental to a successful circular economy. Only products that can be recycled cost-effectively using industrial processes can be part of a circular economy. The current plan across the EU is that all packaging will need to be reusable or recyclable by 2030. But the German packaging industry is more ambitious, aiming for 90% of household packaging to be mechanically recyclable by 2025.

Cost-efficient and high-quality recycling depends on the collection of plastic waste. Separated collection of household and commercial waste therefore needs to be further improved, and a deposit-refund system for beverage bottles should be established throughout Europe. Improvements also need to be made to facilitate the mechanical sorting of plastic waste into different grades, so that unmixed, high-quality recycled materials can be made available for use.

Exporting plastic waste outside of EU and OECD member states reduces the raw material’s availability in the EU and leads to environmental problems when exports are sent to countries with lower environmental and occupational safety standards. Against this backdrop, the plastics industry is in favor of an export ban to non-EU and non-OECD countries if there is demonstrable noncompliance at the destination with the environmental and occupational safety regulations applicable in the EU.

At the moment, 7.2 million metric tons of plastic goes to landfill every year in Europe. The plastics industry is urging the European Commission to put a stop to this disposal method and to mandate the end of landfilling for all recyclable waste in the EU by no later than 2030.

In addition to the return-and-reuse cycle and the well-established mechanical recycling loop, the chemical recycling process will also play an important role in the circular economy going forward – especially for direct food-contact applications.

Mechanical recycling is based on recovering material from plastic waste, whereas the chemical recycling process breaks plastic waste down into its chemical building blocks, which are then converted into new raw materials. Looking ahead, most processes will be able to complement the already established recycling options if they are primarily used to recycle mixed plastic waste and composites along with heavily soiled plastics.

In Germany, the average recycled content of plastic products is currently 14%. There are various ways of increasing this figure:

a) Product-based mandatory levels of recycled content
Principle: A legally mandated minimum level of recycled content would apply to certain products. The mandatory minimums would give suppliers of recycled materials certainty of steady demand, fostering a stable environment for investment in the waste disposal and recycling industries.

b) Polymer-specific substitution levels
Principle: Recycled materials would need to account for a legally mandated minimum share of a company’s plastics sales. This minimum would have to be set at different levels depending on the type of polymer. The intended reduction in the availability of virgin plastics on the market would make them more expensive, increasing demand for recycled materials.

c) Carbon pricing on all materials
Principle: The EU would introduce a system of carbon pricing on all materials. This would promote the use of recycled materials, given that they have a better carbon footprint than primary plastics. At the same time, the market would be incentivized in favor of an energy-efficient circular economy with short transportation distances.

d) Preferential financial treatment of products with recycled content
Principle: Preferential financial treatment could be given to products with recycled content in various ways. In the packaging sector, for instance, this could be done via licensing fees. The EU would create a framework with standardized criteria that would favor both recyclability and the use of recycled materials. This would make nonrecyclable products more expensive and provide a market incentive to use recycled materials.

a) Product-based mandatory levels of recycled content must not lead to product bans
Supply bottlenecks may arise when introducing mandatory levels of recycled content. For as long as the recycled materials needed by the market are not yet available in sufficient quantity and quality, there is a risk of the regulated plastic products being banned from the market through no fault of their own. Companies that can prove they have done everything possible to procure recycled materials must be given assurances that they can continue production and distribution.

b) Clear legal definition of recycled materials
Recycled materials can be sourced from postconsumer waste or production waste. The reuse of either type of recycled material falls within the ambit of a circular economy and prevents the waste from having to be disposed of by other means. The decisive factor governing the recognition of recycled materials is that they must be obtained from waste.

c) Promote standardization to improve the quality of recycled plastics
In Europe, recycled plastics are mainly produced by small and medium-sized enterprises. Each recycler supplies different output quality levels depending on the waste input stream, which makes it difficult to supply the market with large quantities of a consistent quality. However, the production of plastic products requires consistency in its input materials. Standardization is needed to facilitate the large-scale consolidation of raw material procurement so that even large quantities can be sourced from different suppliers at a quality level that is as consistent as possible. In addition, this standardization process must establish a landscape that favors designing plastic products with recyclability in mind and using recycled plastics in new products.

d) Eliminate legal barriers to the use of recycled materials
Where they exist, contradictions must be resolved. On the one hand, recycling rates need to be increased; on the other hand, regulations and competitive bidding processes prevent or hold back the use of recycled materials – including in products such as garbage cans or sewage pipes. When it comes to food-contact applications, too, rigid specifications stand in the way of a burgeoning circular economy. Some of these regulatory approaches need to be updated to better reflect the state of technological development and should be more clearly aligned with broader environmental policy.

e) EU-wide application
Requirements on the use of recycled materials must apply throughout the EU in order to maintain consistency in the internal market.

a) Comprehensive modernization of planning law and expansion of renewables
If the climate change and recycling policy goals are to be achieved within the specified time frame, approval procedures will need to be reviewed more quickly, approved with legal certainty, and accompanied by tax incentives. In addition, the use of renewables for the circular economy must be significantly expanded. The energy needed to power recycling processes must be provided reliably and affordably from renewable sources.

b) Provide financial incentives
The shift toward a circular economy for plastics necessitates significant investment by businesses to ensure that plastic products, new materials, and machinery are designed with recycling in mind. In particular, strong financial incentives are needed to promote the design of readily recyclable packaging and the use of recycled plastics. Such incentives would be effective in driving innovation and would encourage investment in recycling infrastructure and efforts to increase recycling rates.

a) Protect our oceans
The world’s oceans are fragile ecosystems that are also vital to our very survival on Earth. The plastics industry is committed to preventing plastic waste from ending up in our seas. This marine debris is caused by unregulated landfill sites and poor disposal systems. The problem is not the use of plastic products in and of itself, but rather their mishandling after use. Suitable disposal infrastructure must be put in place and used consistently. Banning the use of landfill and the export of waste to third countries as well as introducing and improving deposit-refund systems will play an important role in this context.

b) Take urgent action against microplastics
It is unacceptable for microplastics to be intentionally added to products. Situations where microplastics are unavoidably generated, such as tire and fabric abrasion, must be reduced to a minimum. The industry is taking action to combat the unintentional release of microplastics – for example, from lost pellets. Measures have included Operation Clean Sweep, the Null Pelletverlust (“Zero Pellet Loss”) practical project organized by raw material manufacturers as part of the Responsible Care initiative, and the Null Granulatverlust (“Zero Granule Loss”) project led by processors.

Various trade groups were involved in the position paper: the German Plastics Converters’ Association (GKV) and its member associations, PlasticsEurope Deutschland, and the Plastics and Rubber Machinery trade body within the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA). The BDE and BVSE also participated as organizations representing the waste disposal and recycling industries.

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