Here you will find an excerpt from the latest paper from the European commission “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”:
Plastic is an important and ubiquitous material in our economy and daily lives. It has multiple functions that help tackle a number of the challenges facing our society. Light and innovative materials in cars or planes save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. High-performance insulation materials help us save on energy bills. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. Combined with 3D printing, bio-compatible plastic materials can save human lives by enabling medical innovation.
However, too often the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded fails to capture the economic benefits of a more ‘circular’ approach and harms the environment. There is an urgent need to tackle the environmental problems that today cast a long shadow over the production, use and consumption of plastics. The million tonnes of plastic litter that end up in the oceans every year are one of their most visible and alarming signs of these problems, causing growing public concern.
Rethinking and improving the functioning of such a complex value chain requires efforts and greater cooperation by all its key players, from plastics producers to recyclers, retailers and consumers. It also calls for innovation and a shared vision to drive investment in the right direction. The plastics industry is very important to the European economy, and increasing its sustainability can bring new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and job creation, in line with the objectives pursued by the renewed EU Industrial Policy Strategy. 1
In December 2015, the Commission adopted an EU Action Plan for a circular economy. 2 There, it identified plastics as a key priority and committed itself to ‘prepare a strategy addressing the challenges posed by plastics throughout the value chain and taking into account their entire life-cycle’. In 2017, the Commission confirmed it would focus on plastics production and use and work towards the goal of ensuring that all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2030.”
‘A vision for Europe’s new plastics economy’
A smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry, where design and production fully respects the needs of reuse, repair, and recycling, brings growth and jobs to Europe and helps cut EU’s greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels.
−Plastics and products containing plastics are designed to allow for greater durability, reuse and high-quality recycling. By 2030, all plastics packaging placed on the EU market is either reusable or can be recycled in a cost-effective manner.
−Changes in production and design enable higher plastics recycling rates for all key applications. By 2030, more than half of plastics waste generated in Europe is recycled. Separate collection of plastics waste reaches very high levels. Recycling of plastics packaging waste achieves levels comparable with those of other packaging materials.
−EU plastics recycling capacity is significantly extended and modernised. By 2030, sorting and recycling capacity has increased fourfold since 2015, leading to the creation of 200 000 new jobs, spread all across Europe. 19
−Thanks to improved separate collection and investment in innovation, skills and capacity upscaling, export of poorly sorted plastics waste has been phased out. Recycled plastics have become an increasingly valuable feedstock for industries, both at home and abroad.
−The plastics value chain is far more integrated, and the chemical industry works closely with plastics recyclers to help them find wider and higher value applications for their output. Substances hampering recycling processes have been replaced or phased out.
−The market for recycled and innovative plastics is successfully established, with clear growth perspectives as more products incorporate some recycled content. Demand for recycled plastics in Europe has grown four-fold, providing a stable flow of revenues for the recycling sector and job security for its growing workforce.
−More plastic recycling helps reduce Europe’s dependence on imported fossil fuel and cut CO2 emissions, in line with commitments under the Paris Agreement.
−Innovative materials and alternative feedstocks for plastic production are developed and used where evidence clearly shows that they are more sustainable compared to the non-renewable alternatives. This supports efforts on decarbonisation and creating additional opportunities for growth.
−Europe confirms its leadership in sorting and recycling equipment and technologies. Exports rise in lockstep with global demand for more sustainable ways of processing end-of-life plastics.
In Europe, citizens, government and industry support more sustainable and safer consumption and production patterns for plastics. This provides a fertile ground for social innovation and entrepreneurship, creating a wealth of opportunities for all Europeans.
−Plastic waste generation is decoupled from growth. Citizens are aware of the need to avoid waste, and make choices accordingly. Consumers, as key players, are incentivised, made aware of key benefits and thus enabled to contribute actively to the transition. Better design, new business models and innovative products emerge that offer more sustainable consumption patterns.
−Many entrepreneurs see the need for more resolute action on plastics waste prevention as a business opportunity. Increasingly, new companies emerge that provide circular solutions, such as reverse logistics for packaging or alternatives to disposable plastics, and they benefit from the development of digitisation.
−The leakage of plastics into the environment decreases drastically. Effective waste collection systems, combined with a drop in waste generation and with increased consumer awareness, avoid litter and ensure that waste is handled appropriately. Marine litter from sea-based sources such as ships, fishing and aquaculture are significantly reduced. Cleaner beaches and seas foster activities such as tourism and fisheries, and preserve fragile ecosystems. All major European cities are much cleaner.
−Innovative solutions are developed to prevent microplastics from reaching the seas. Their origin, routes of travel, and effects on human health are better understood, and industry and public authorities are working together to prevent them from ending up in our oceans and our air, drinking water or on our plates.
−The EU is taking a leading role in a global dynamic, with countries engaging and cooperating to halt the flow of plastics into the oceans and taking remedial action against plastics waste already accumulated. Best practices are disseminated widely, scientific knowledge improves, citizens mobilise, and innovators and scientists develop solutions that can be applied worldwide.
Improving the economics and quality of plastics recycling
Stepping up the recycling of plastics can bring significant environmental and economic benefits. Higher levels of plastic recycling, comparable with those of other materials, will only be achieved by improving the way plastics and plastics articles are produced and designed. It will also require increased cooperation across the value chain: from industry, plastics manufacturers and converters to public and private waste management companies. Specifically, key players should work together to:
−improve design and support innovation to make plastics and plastic products easier to recycle;
−expand and improve the separate collection of plastic waste, to ensure quality inputs to the recycling industry;
−expand and modernise the EU’s sorting and recycling capacity;
−create viable markets for recycled and renewable plastics.
Using a plant-derived solvent called GVL (gamma-Valerolactone), University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic and his team have developed an economical and high-yielding way of producing furandicarboxylic acid, or FDCA. One of 12 chemicals the U.S. Department of Energy calls critical to forging a “green” chemical industry, FDCA is a necessary precursor to a renewable plastic called PEF (or polyethylene furanoate) as well as to a number of polyesters and polyurethanes.
“Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,” says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, a UW-Madison graduate student in chemical and biological engineering and co-author of the study. “You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.”
Motagamwala and colleagues’ new process begins with fructose, which they convert in a two-step process to FDCA in a solvent system composed of one part GVL and one part water. The end result is a high yield of FDCA that easily separates from the solvent as a white powder upon cooling.
The team’s techno-economic analysis suggests that the process could currently produce FDCA at a minimum selling price of $1,490 per ton. With improvements, including lowering the cost of feedstock and reducing the reaction time, the price could reach $1,310 per ton, which would make their FDCA cost-competitive with some fossil fuel-derived plastic precursors.
“We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry have been waiting for,” says Dumesic. “Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.”