TOMRA Leads Event on Creating a Circular Economy for Plastics

CONFERENCE: “Plastics are the Future, but Not Plastic Waste…”

“Plastics are the Future, but Not Plastic Waste”, Tom Eng told delegates to the TOMRA Leads conference this morning.

Dr Volker Rehrmann, TOMRA Executive Vice President and CTO, Head of Business Area Sorting Solutions.

Image ©

Opening the TOMRA Leads conference on plastic waste in Sofia, Bulgaria this morning, Tom Eng, TOMRA Senior Vice President and Head of TOMRA Sorting Solutions, Recycling told delegates that “Plastics are the Future, but Not Plastic Waste”.

Explaining the need for a shift towards a more circular economy for plastics, he went on to quote George Bernard Shaw: “progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”.

Coinciding with World Environment Day, the event will look at all aspects of the plastics value chain, as well as the pros and cons of various collection systems, deposit return schemes and manufacturer initiatives.

Later in the morning, making his keynote speech, Dr Volker Rehrmann, Head of Business Area Sorting Solutions, noted a seachange in attitudes to plastics and the need to create a much more circular value chain. Spurred on by initiatives such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy, many major brands across the value chain are starting to come together.

“No one would ever have believed that our EU government could come up with quite such impressive targets, together with a new way of measuring them… Now is the time to do it, but we need to take a holistic approach,” he said. “But we need to collaborate, we need to do it together.

“Design for recyclability is so important,” Rehrmann told delegates. “Design has never been high on the agenda. Design for cost and design for aesthetics, yes. But not for recyclability, and this is how we’ve ended up with a lot of problems - but it’s changing.”

He also urged more thought to be given to reuse for plastics to be tackled. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense from a CO2 perspective, but sometimes it makes a lot of sense. We have to have it on the agenda, plastics are very durable materials…”

The Inconvenient Truth
Using some approximated numbers to update a 2013 Ellen MacArthur foundation diagram on material flows for plastic packaging, Rehrmann highlighted the fact that around 30 million tonnes of plastic waste are still leaking into the environment, 40 million tonnes being landfilled, 14 million tonnes incinerated – only 14 million tonnes are collected for recycling.

Moreover, of the 14 million tonnes collected, 4 million tonnes are lost in the recycling process and 8.5 million tonnes are ‘downcycled’. That leaves just 2.5 million tonnes being recycled in a closed loop.

“Think about it,” he urged. “After 20 years of effort we have all put into this - it’s an inconvenient truth. But how are we going to change that? First of all we need to collect more plastics and bring it into the recycling stream…. A big problem is leakage, and really most of that comes from South East Asia and Africa. We need to focus on those areas where there is no proper collection system. We can achieve a lot there.”

“In the west, we could put some sorting equipment in front of landfill and incineration,” he continued. “We have some projects now where we’re working with a number of incineration plants. It takes a change of mindset – there will always be some residual waste, but we can recover much more – there is no technical innovation needed.”

“Take this message with you,” said Rehrmann. “It is not a problem to recover plastics from waste that is going to landfill. It can be done. But you need to bring it to a quality where it can replace virgin material, otherwise it is not helping create a circular economy for plastics.”

“We need a new mindset in the recycling industry – quality quality quality. If we don’t achieve that we will fail. If recycled material keeps a reputation for inferior quality we will fail,” he concluded.

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