How Europe is working to make plastic fantastic

EU Commission unveils plans to tackle plastic waste Picture: Getty/Roman Babakin

Plastics are absolutely everywhere. Deeply embedded in the modern life, it is present in every form, ranging from the packaging of our food to toys, from heat-saving insulation in homes to life-saving medical innovations. However, plastics are not being used in an optimum manner. The lifespan of many plastic objects are too short and hence, are piling up once thrown away. Europe is defining a plastic strategy to genuinely make plastic a valuable resource through recycling and reuse. The overall goal of Europe is to attain 50% plastics waste recycling by 2040.

The mismanagement of plastic has made this material a nuisance, depriving the economy of a valuable resource. Various studies and research work have led the European Commission (EC) to acknowledge that it will be impossible to totally eliminate plastic. It has, hence, come up with a well-defined strategy to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2020. This plan of action forms part of a wider strategy to reach the 2030 Development Goals and the Paris Agreement objectives.

Recycling and reuse of plastics will spur investment and job creation

The transition towards a low-carbon and circular economy will not be possible if a tangible solution is not included to tackle plastic in a realistic manner. Plastic packaging, in particular, is the typical most single-use product, representing a quarter of the total volume of plastics. Annually, it grabs 95% of the total value of plastic-packaging material and some $80 billion to $210 billion are lost yearly to the economy. Its intended useful life is typically less than a year but plastic itself lives on for thousands of years.

This is the reason why the EC is aiming at reducing plastic pollution while fostering innovation in terms of recycling and reuse of plastics. This approach is expected to lead towards a more circular economy. This strategy will revamp businesses involved in the way plastics products are designed, produced, used and recycled in the European Union (EU). Reducing plastic waste by recycling and reuse is considered as the sole long-term solution right now. This endeavour will spur investment opportunities and the creation of new jobs in a new and sustainable plastics economy. As part of this strategy, the EC will set out new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increase the demand for recycled plastic content. As a powerful incentive, recycling will be made more profitable for businesses too.

According to feasibility plans, enhanced collection facilities for plastics and the scaling up of recycling will save around €100 per tonne collected. The plastics industry will become more resilient and competitive too. Innovation is also an important factor in this plan of action. The EU has earmarked €100M for research and innovation as per its Horizon 2020 Programme. €250M has already been invested and the remaining funds are destined for financing the development of smarter and more recyclable plastic materials. Plans will also be devised to make recycling processes more efficient while tracing and eliminating hazardous contaminants from recycled plastics. Focus is also being laid on preventing plastics leakages into the environment.

Rethinking the value chain of plastic

Rethinking and improving the complex value chain of plastic is not an easy task. Plastics are the factotum of the modern economy and their popularity and versatility have kept the industry growing for the last 50 years. In Europe, over 1.4 million people work in the plastics industry which is worth over €350 billion annually. However, opportunities are being missed as recycling rates remain low and the reliance on virgin materials remains high.

To encourage the use of recycled plastics, the EC has launched a pledging campaign for European industries. The target is to use 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics in the production of new products on the EU market by 2025. According to the EC, industry commitment and cooperation from key players are improving. Various organisations in the plastic industry in Europe have already adopted a framework of voluntary commitments to boost recycling activities of plastics.

On its side, the plastic recycling industry is speeding up to innovate to overcome current barriers. Several operators are devising new strategies so that none of their plastic products ends up as litter and that their packaging becomes as sustainable as possible. Coca-Cola, for instance, is exploring new methods to recover all of its packaging so that more is recycled. They conducted a trial at Reading University where students brought reusable bottles and benefitted from free refills. Total, on its side, is working on a gigantic project to construct roads from recycled plastics.

Science is unfolding revolutionary recycling techniques

Groundbreaking science is unfolding new innovative ways as well aiming at reducing plastic waste. Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered a method to produce diesel fuel and other petroleum products from used grocery bags. The energy used in the conversion process is much less that the energy recovered. In India, the recycling initiative goes back by decades. As a matter of fact, the founder of the company K.K. Plastic Waste Management came up with a method in the early 1990s to mix plastic from landfills with asphalt to form a compound that can be used to construct roads. To date, approximately 1,000 miles have been built. Such roads have even proved to be much more solid and long-lasting than traditional ones, even able to withstand monsoons.  In New York, graduate of the Master of Architecture program at Rensselaer Polytechnic University conceived a technique to granulate plastic bags and mix them with concrete to form bricks. The material blend keeps the plastic used away from landfills and eliminates the need to add the typical mined aggregate to the concrete mix.

Another revolutionary innovation is that of scientists from the University of Adelaide. They have devised a way to transform plastic bags into carbon nanotube membranes (CNTs) which is a highly sophisticated material six times lighter and hundreds times stronger than steel. CNTs are currently used in the manufacturing of innovative electronics, wind turbines and sensing devices just to name a few.