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The Role of Plastics in a Circular Economy — Time to Rethink!

16Feb

This year, the European Commission will release its “Strategy on Plastics in the Circular Economy”. So, what will be the role for plastics? Isn’t the problem of waste and today’s low recycling rates suggesting we should simply restrict the use of plastics?

If we are serious about creating solutions for the world’s mega challenges — resources, climate change, emissions, food — we do and will need plastics to be part of the solution. We, the European plastics industry, are committed to contributing to achieving a circular and resource efficient economy.

Innovation: the core of the Plastics Strategy

Innovations made by, from and with plastics account for many of the advances that society is benefiting from today. The role of innovation becomes more essential than ever if we want to achieve an increasingly circular European economy. We must cultivate the breeding ground that encourages, stimulates and accelerates innovation to deliver the desired solutions. To make it happen, innovation has to be focused.

We call for the environmental impact of a product to be addressed holistically over its entire life cycle, not just after use.

Full life cycle thinking: key to fully reap the benefits

Plastics are used in a broad range of applications, resulting in products like insulation panels for buildings, window frames, (electrical) cars, medical devices, windmills, packed foods & goods and more.

Most of the political discussions regarding the circular economy tend to disconnect the plastics from the products they are used in, and concentrate their attention on end-of-life. We call for the environmental impact of a product to be addressed holistically over its entire life cycle, not just after use. Innovation within this cycle needs to be applied where most impactful: for some products this might be increasing their performance during the use phase, while for others it might be increasing their post-use collection and sorting technologies, and still for others you will need to improve their design.

All materials used in a product have an impact on the environment. Plastic materials are no different. A study carried out by Trucost showed that the environmental impact of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than using alternative materials. Plastics save far more energy and resources over a product life cycle than are required to produce them — that’s why they are perfect materials to shape the future.

The benefits these products bring throughout their full life cycle — such as overall resource savings, product protection, and longer life times — largely outweigh their non-recyclability at the end of life.

Recycling: improve, grow and explore new horizons

PlasticsEurope sees recycling as an important source of materials for products and an area where innovation needs to be stimulated to further increase the recycling and the recyclability of products, e.g. packaging. Significant achievements have been obtained but more needs to be done.

It has to be acknowledged, however, that recycling is not always environmentally beneficial and not all products are recyclable. Still, the benefits these products bring throughout their full life cycle — such as overall resource savings, product protection, and longer life times — largely outweigh their non-recyclability at the end of life. This is often the case for highly sophisticated and/or safety-sensitive applications enabled by plastics. These aspects of ecodesigning products with plastics can sometimes conflict with the objective of recyclability and will need to be addressed in the circular economy package to ensure that it leads to a resource-efficient economy.

Strengthening research and development of new technologies that convert non-mechanically recyclable plastics into feedstock for the production of new materials offers further potential opportunities. That being said, waste-to-energy needs to remain a complementary solution when none of the recycling options work.

Marine litter: global actions and partnerships

One of the global challenges we are facing today is the leakage of products, including plastic materials, into the environment, particularly our oceans. This is a global problem that requires a global solution. Our priority is to stop polluting the land, rivers and oceans.

The European plastics industry initiated and organized its engagements via two major global platforms: the World Plastics Council (WPC) and the Global Plastics Alliance (GPA). In 2014, industry leaders launched the WPC to tackle marine litter and promote efficient waste management practices. The global plastics associations joined forces in “Marine Litter Solutions” within the GPA and has expanded its activities across the four continents.

We need all players within the products value chain — from designers to recyclers, from retailers to communities — to work together in partnerships to prioritize innovations aimed at increasing the efficiency of Europe’s resources.

Change perceptions and behavior! Plastic waste is only waste when wasted.

A change in mentality where waste is recognized and treated as a resource needs to take place. We need all players within the products value chain — from designers to recyclers, from retailers to communities — to work together in partnerships to prioritize innovations aimed at increasing the efficiency of Europe’s resources.

We expect the European Commission’s ‘Strategy on Plastics in the Circular Economy’ to revitalise and support innovation, and to take full life cycle thinking as a base for decision-making, keeping resource efficiency as the overall objective.

Plastics bring many positive contributions to society. Our industry is willing to engage in a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders to transform today’s challenges into sustainable solutions for tomorrow’s growth.

www.plasticseurope.org/strategy

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