circular economy

Systemic weakness: the thing about plastic

Science, environmental advocates and industry all agree on one thing: plastic needs a circular economy so that less plastic waste ends up in the eco-systems. The actual measures to be taken are in dispute.

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At a time not exactly lacking in global challenges, the plastic crisis had temporarily receded into the background. On the one hand, there is the overriding problem of excessive global warming from the unbridled release of CO2; on the other, the COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on people’s lives. This has made it easy to forget that there is another environmental problem badgering the planet and its inhabitants. Just back in August 2020, the National Oceanography Centre in the UK pointed out the extent of microplastic pollution in the oceans in the most comprehensive study on this subject to date. According to this study, there are 12 to 21 million tonnes of waste floating in the upper water layers of the oceans, with a single cubic metre of ocean water containing up to 7,000 microplastic particles.

This set of issues is now recognised by politicians, environmental NGOs and industry alike: the broken linear system so harmful to the environment and humanity must be transformed into a sustainable circular economy for plastics. But how can that be accomplished?

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The National Oceanography Centre in the UK pointed out the extent of microplastic pollution in the oceans: there are 12 to 21 million tonnes of waste floating in the upper water layers of the oceans, with a single cubic metre of ocean water containing up to 7,000 microplastic particles

What scientists demand

In “Packaging plastics in the circular economy”, a report issued in March 2020 by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), researchers from 28 European countries presented the extent of the problem and outlined approaches to resolve it. The report notes that the worldwide production of plastics has increased 20-fold since the 1960s. In 2018, factories recorded an output of 360 million tonnes of plastics, 62 million tonnes of which were produced in Europe. Just 16% of plastic waste is collected for material recycling. The remainder is incinerated, landfilled, exported or otherwise discarded somewhere and somehow.

Along with a ban on exporting plastic wastes from the EU, the EASAC scientists advocate closed-loop systems. The use of disposable packaging should be minimised and plastic wastes should no longer be landfilled. Recycling should have tax benefits and the price of virgin plastic should be increased. The fact that virgin materials are so cheap – partly because of the low price of oil – poses a “fundamental barrier to greater demand for recycled materials” according to the report.

What environmental advocates demand

“Plastic is a gigantic climate killer and CO2 driver – but the public is still insufficiently aware of that,” says Lisa Panhuber, consumer affairs expert at Greenpeace in Austria. The production and incineration of thousands of tonnes of plastic causes some four million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year in Austria alone – which is about one-and-a-half times the CO2 foot- print of air traffic (prior to COVID-19). Environmental organisations are calling for disposable plastic packaging to be limited by law and for multi-use systems to be massively expanded, for instance for beverages. “We can substantially lower oil consumption and emissions caused by plastic production if we reduce packaging and switch to multi-use systems,” Panhuber notes.

What the EU is doing

In 2019, the European Union adopted its Single-Use Plastics Directive, which must be transposed into national law by the Member States by 2021. The EU bans, among other things, products such as cotton buds, straws or balloon sticks made of plastic as well as food packaging and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and prescribes the separate collection of at least 90% of plastic bottles by 2029.

At an EU summit in Brussels in August 2020, the heads of state or government agreed to a plastic waste levy of €0.80 per kilogramme (€800 per tonne) for non-recycled plastic packaging waste. From 2021, each Member State must remit the corresponding amount to Brussels, yet has the discretion to draw this amount from its budget (i.e. funded by taxpayers) or to pass the costs on to the manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

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What the current Austrian government programme calls for

By 2021, the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive must be transposed by the Member States. This transposition is also contained in the Government Programme of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The details – re-introduction of a deposit system for beverage packaging or incentives for increased collection – are still under negotiation. In any event, parliament is set to pass the new waste management act this autumn.

What industry is doing

Whatever form the detailed rules take, pressure on the industry is mounting. In the struggle for opinion leadership, seven companies in the plastic and packaging industry – Alpla, Greiner, Interseroh, Erema and Engel, as well as the Austrian distributors of Coca-Cola and Nestlé – already announced in May 2020 the founding of the ‘Packaging with a Future’ Platform. They view themselves as mouthpieces for improving the industry’s image and for highlighting the advantages of plastic. And they are providing concrete suggestions: a uniform collection system, better infrastructure for separation, collection, sorting and recycling, and the promotion of packaging solutions that are 100% reusable, recoverable or recyclable.

Alpla CEO Günther Lehner comes right to the point: “Plastics definitely have no place in the environment,” he asserts, adding that it is not the material itself that is harmful but the careless way in which the waste is handled. “Plastic packaging is very light, unbreakable and enables the safe and hygienic transport of products,” he notes. “Convenient handling and especially hygienic aspects are compelling arguments for consumers.”

Alpla operates its own recycling plants for HDPE and PET, thereby helping to turn used plastic bottles into new ones. The development department at Alpla is creating lightweight PET multi-use bottles and solutions for refillable packaging.

Design for recycling

Alpla is not the only company intent on designing packaging to be as easy as possible to recycle. Engel is too, as Günther Klammer, Vice President of Plastification Systems and Recycling, says: “Our focus is on ‘Design for Recycling’ and new digital technologies.” He explains that the goal is to enable the production of packaging that “conserves resources and is itself recyclable.” One example: transport boxes and containers produced in a sandwich injection moulding process so they consist partly of recycled material and partly of virgin material. If the recycled and virgin material are the same type of plastic – e.g. polypropylene – easy recycling of these products is assured.

Monomaterials

According to Schur Flexibles CEO Michael Schernthaner, “In all parts of life, we use plastics optimised precisely for the in- tended purpose. With an eye to the CO2 balance, responsibly used plastics have rightly proved themselves to be the more reasonable alternative ecologically.” One of the difficulties of recycling packaging material is often the variety of materials used.

International packaging manufacturers such as Schur Flexibles are trying to solve this problem by using monomaterials. “Back in late 2019, we became one of the first companies on the market to offer a recyclable monomaterial alternative for all our market segments,” says Schernthaner.

Global approach

For Greiner, a plastic and foam manufacturer based in Kremsmünster, Austria, the most important thing is to take a look at regions where plastic actually ends up in the oceans. “Waste management systems are underdeveloped in Asia, but also in Africa,” explains Greiner CEO Axel Kühner. “One approach is therefore to expand waste disposal systems world- wide. The only way forward is to invest in the improvement of waste disposal.”

In the Philippines, Greiner is showing how to do just that, in partnership with the social organisation Plastic Bank. People in coastal regions receive eco- nomic incentives to collect plastic waste, which is then returned to the market as a resource. Ultimately, the intention is to achieve an outcome that sounds too good to be true: avoiding plastic waste while reducing poverty.

Legal framework

Innovation is essential for the desired circular economy. All plastic manufacturers agree that this change will naturally occur neither on its own nor without a legal framework. For one, clear provisions are essential so investments can be reliably planned. But Engel manager Klammer notes that it is also important to adopt a “differentiated view and not unsettle the consumer any further. Switching from polymer materials often yields a worse CO2 balance, especially in packaging.”

Communication directed at the end consumer is just as vital as the legal framework in the opinion of Alpla CEO Günther Lehner: “Nothing will work without consumers. They decide what they buy and how they dispose of used packaging or items. This decision re- quires that consumers recognise plastic packaging as a valuable material, not just as worthless refuse.”