26. November 2020
Topic:  Circular economy

🌍 Europe's Plastic Pledge: Inside the EASAC's Vision for a Circular Economy

The European Academies Science Advisory Council has a vision for integrating plastics into a circular economy, but is it feasible? From the export of plastic waste to the innovations in recycling technology, Michael and Jiří Kotek discuss the pivotal challenges and solutions outlined in the EASAC report. Discover the direction Europe is heading in its quest for a sustainable plastic future.

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Interview transcript

ML (Michael Londesborough): Global plastic consumption has increased since the 1960s to today from approx. 1.5 mil. to about 400 mil. tons a year. The European Academies Science Advisory Council, EASAC, in March of this year, produced this document - Packaging plastics in the circular economy - which warns that to date efforts to curtail this have been inadequate. Today, I have with me the director of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry at CAS, the Czech Academy of Sciences and president of the European Polymer Federation, Jiří Kotek, who helped to create the EASAC report. 

ML: Hello and thank you for accepting the invitation Jiří. Is the EU capable of internally dealing with the plastic waste it creates?

JK (Jiří Kotek): It must. We have to behave responsibly. You’re probably hinting at the first rule - banning the export of plastic waste. For years, we in Europe have been exporting plastic waste to China and once China stopped accepting it, we began exporting to Malaysia, Vietnam and other countries. Here at home we can act as if nothing is happening, there’s little to none plastic waste in the Alpine foothills or the mouth of the Rhyne river – but for example, The Himalayas in Asia are a whole different story. Therefore, we should be responsible and not export the waste, because we have no way of knowing what happens to it on the other end of the globe.

ML: Let’s look at the seven recommendations. First one is to stop exporting plastic waste as you just mentioned. Should we here in Europe be expecting a huge rise in the amount of plastic waste? Do we have the capacity?

JK: As far as packaging goes, only about 20% is exported - not a staggering amount.

ML: In your opinion, are we ready?

JK: We are and we have to be. I’m sure we’ll get to the possibilities of, I don’t want to say liquidation, but utilization of plastic waste. So, I think that we’ll be able to handle it.

ML: I’d like to examine those words closer - utilization, liquidation, recycling - those are blanket terms under which there is always discussion about what is truly recycling, what is true liquidation and so on. But if we ban plastic waste export, what is the danger in storing it underground in landfills? Today, more than 40% of plastic waste is put into landfills. Is that number good? Bad number? What can we expect in the future?

JK: The fact that it even exists is bad. Personally, I don’t see plastic waste as a waste, but as a source - either a source of energy or material. We need to utilize this resource instead of landfilling.

ML: That’s understandable. Your document even sets as a goal 0% of plastic going to landfills with 40% of plastics currently going to landfill, is this realistic? Can we do it?

JK: Yes, I think in our country the motive force which encourages landfilling are the extremely low fees for it.

ML: What specific measures need to be taken for us to implement the change? And what will happen with the plastics that are currently being exported? How can we utilize them or dispose them? Are we talking disposal, recycling?

JK: The best option is recycling and closing the loop, which at the moment works with high-density polyethylene and PET. That means that at the end of the product lifecycle, we recreate the same product - for example, bottle to bottle.

ML: I believe that requires very high level sorting, right? We need to have only polyethylene or only PET…

JK: Yes, there are several different recycling methods. The first is material recycling, which is only suitable for thermoplastics. Here we melt the material and then reprocess it. A big obstacle here is the cleanliness of the feedstock. When it comes to PET bottles, cleanliness is not such an issue. Worse is a combination of all kinds of plastics, where we then have to add specific substances to create compatibility among them in order to enable the creation of any kind of new material. Another step is chemical recycling, where we deconstruct a polymer into the original monomers - the particles from which it was synthesized - and then we recreate the polymer again. That’s a bit less challenging in regards to cleanliness, but the demands are still quite high. Much lower feedstock cleanliness requirements need to be met for raw material recycling, where through either pyrolysis or gasification we gain hydrocarbons or synthetic gas.

ML: But are the resulting products of the same quality as virgin materials? Will they be able to compete with virgin petroleum-based materials on the market?

JK: I believe that in the case of raw materials recycling, we can use the resulting product to create new polyolefin, polypropylene, polyethylene and many other applications. So even if the loop doesn’t get closed, it’s still worthwhile. And finally, anything that can’t be recycled can still be utilized for energy.

ML: For incineration?

JK: Yes. Instead of just getting rid of them, utilize the energy that plastics contain. Polyethylene, polypropylene, many other plastics have a higher heating value than brown coal.

ML: I understand, but to set a goal for zero landfilling and to implement these measures is one thing. For that to happen, we need widespread cooperation, starting with production, through sales all the way to consumption. The key there is responsibility - who is responsible, starting from manufacturing all the way to disposal? Can you tell me something about Extended Producer Responsibility, which also relates to the third point of your report?

JK: Sure. Today, the phrase “design for recycling” is becoming increasingly popular. The producer is responsible for the material they use, for the way they design a given package, for how much of the surface has print on it, for how many different materials they use - so they should bear the brunt of responsibility.

ML: The producer of the package, not the producer of the material used to make the package?

JK: The producer of the package.

ML: What do the companies which produce these packages tell you when you consult with them? Do they argue that the consumer should bear some responsibility? Is it also about our human behavior or can we, consumers, wash our hands of it and leave the responsibility to packaging producers?

JK: We, the end users, are the most culpable for the current state of affairs. We’ve gotten used to a comfortable lifestyle, cheap groceries with a long shelf life and we’re paying for it with most likely irreversible damage to the environment.

ML: How will that cooperation work among political parties, government, plastic producers, packaging manufacturers, and vendors? Is their cooperation functional? Do they have the same goals, strategies for implementation, or are we at the beginning?

JK: I think we’re at the beginning and the goals are not the same. I also see some ecological organizations as an obstacle to comprehensive recycling strategies - in essence they want to recycle, but when something is about to get built, they’re against it. They hear the word chemistry and everything is wrong again.

ML: I see, you think there’s a problem with people’s basic understanding of chemistry, plastics…

JK: Yes, it’s the same as with, for example, linear transport construction - we all want to drive on the highway and none of us wants to have it behind our house.

ML: What’s the way out? How can we make this situation better? I get the impression from you that many people hear “plastic” and automatically see it as negative. At the same time, is there any viable alternative to plastic packaging? In other words, can we just say no to plastics across the board and use something else?

JK: Well, at this point we don’t have anything better when it comes to environmental impact. The report shows, based on different segments of packaging, all alternatives lead to a higher production of CO2 than using plastic packaging.

ML: And does your report contain concrete steps we can take to diffuse that information?

JK: Extended Producer Responsibility begins with the producer that has to pay a fee depending on what type of packaging they produce. For example, this system works great in Italy, where the fee ranges from less than 150 Euro to nearly 600 euro per ton of packaging material and the fee amount is determined by how difficult that material is to recycle or reuse.

ML: So it’s a bit of a whip approach - we have to put economic measures in place. We’ll return to that, but meanwhile, I believe there have already been many attempts to replace synthetic plastics, for example polyethylene or polypropylene made from alternative resources – from bioplastics. In your opinion, can bioplastics help?

JK: It’s always good to have several ways toward the same goal. It gives us the power of choice, but at this point, I don’t believe that bio-based materials can fully replace plastic.

ML: But isn’t it a good idea to instead of using fossil resources, carbon…

JK: Yes, but you’re there competing for the same arable land that we use to grow food. As I said, it’s good that alternatives exist, but it’s not a sweeping solution. It’s well-documented that if we replaced all polyethylene production with wheat-based polyethylene, we’d need 90% of the global annual wheat production to cover one year of polyethylene usage.

ML: Your report document even recommends putting an end to “misleading bio-alternatives” - those are pretty strong words. Do you believe that we’re mistaken about their ability to help?

JK: Well, first off, bio is a great prefix, it’s good advertising - it sells everything. The term bioplastic represents either bio-based, which are plastic from natural or non-fossil sources, or biodegradable plastics. We’re afraid that if we carry-on with our behavior towards plastic in the same way we’ve been and if we rely on biodegradable plastic to degrade in nature on its own, then we won’t help ourselves at all. Furthermore, most compostable plastics require an industrial composter with a set temperature. Out in nature, their degradation would take much, much longer. By composting, we create just as much CO2 as energy utilization and, what is more, anaerobic degradation also produces methane.

ML: This sounds to me like there’s no one concrete way that’d lead us out of our current situation…

JK: A change in behavior is absolutely essential. Regarding bioplastics, we mention that they make sense in applications where the package is soiled by a substance that can also be composted. And of course they make sense when using the biodegradable plastic in medicinal applications for absorbable sutures, stitches and they also make sense in agriculture - for example, for mulching agro textiles that are hard to remove.

ML: The EASAC report points out that effective recycling is quite difficult and, at the same time, it calls for advanced recycling and reprocessing technologies. Could you give me some examples of such advanced technologies?

JK: Sure. We consider technologies such as pyrolysis or gasification to be advanced.

ML: What stands in the way before we can use those more widely? Is it in the research phase or can we take large volumes?

JK: It’s in the phase of realization - units are being built or are built already for pyrolysis or gasification. The issue is our comfortable lifestyle and the chase for lower price at any cost - low petroleum prices, for example, are an obstacle for recycling.

ML: Personally, I’m worried about how prepared are we for such a big shift. It’s great that we’ll try to stop exporting plastic waste to other places in the world and it’s great to have a goal to end landfilling, but it means we need to have systems in place which are ready and have the capacity to immediately take in a process such a large volume of waste.

JK: There’s always the option of energetic utilization - incineration with energy utilization. It’s not as bad as the public may think, if we look at neighboring countries and development in the last 10-15 years. The countries using a lot of energy utilization - Austria, Switzerland, Germany - were also recycling a lot. And today they don’t landfill any plastic waste at all.

ML: Incineration also solves the problem that if I go to sort my waste, I can go to the yellow container and throw in anything I consider to be plastic. However, the term plastic is an umbrella term for many different materials and polymers - that’s also an issue, right? This mix of many different polymers needs to be separated further, which is also quite challenging and costly. Incineration can resolve this, because it can all be incinerated collectively – this is actually related to the 6th recommendation we have that is about limiting the amount of additives, as well as the amount of different types of polymers used.

JK: Yes, one recommendation is to lower the number of materials used for packaging. For example, we recommend packages less than 5cm in size to be made from one material like LDPE.

ML: Are some polymers worse than others? As a layman, I may hear about polyethylene or polypropylene or polystyrene, etc. Should I try to support one type of polymer over others? Should we restrict the producers of some polymers and support others? What’s the right way forward?

JK: I don’t like to talk about limiting or restricting someone, but Extended Producer Responsibility should take into account how easily we can recycle that material. Some polymers are, of course, easier to recycle than others.

ML: Can we leave these changes to the power of the free market or should governments be more involved?

JK: I typically don’t like regulations, but we cannot leave this up to the free market.

ML: The last point is about price regulations and setting quotas for recycled content…

JK: That awaits us, also we won’t avoid the European tax for non-recycled packaging, which’ll be 80 cents per kilogram - that’s comparable to the virgin polymer price.

ML: So the EU is going to tax individual states in the European Union for the amount they don’t recycle. In this case, what all is considered recycling? Does incineration count?

JK: The tax was introduced approx. 2 weeks ago. I tried to find that out and didn’t find any provision regarding that. I personally would like, if there was an even bigger fee for landfilled plastics.

ML: Jiří Kotek, thank you very much.

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