Change Is Possible

Used plastics are no longer waste. It is the preferred raw material for the production of plastic items. This is true for both packaging and technical applications. Recycled plastics are available in sufficient quantities in the required quality and are being traded at competitive prices in a transparent market

This situation, here still formulated as a vision, must be realised quickly. Surveys such as the highly regarded study Breaking the Plastic Wave¹ conducted by the PEW Charitable Trusts and Systemiq show that a transformation of the recycling system is a central building block for avoiding a massive increase in the dramatic environmental damage that is already happening. In the face of rapidly increasing plastic production volumes, this is urgently needed.

Development of plastic pollution of the oceans based on different assumptions. Source: PEW Charitable Trusts, Systemiq (2020)

According to a model in the study Breaking the Plastic Wave by Systemiq and The PEW Chartiable Trusts, a fundamental transformation of the system towards a circular economy could reduce annual amount of plastic pollution of the oceans by about 80 per cent compared to continuing the current linear business model. The data-driven model also shows that focusing on single pathways, reduce and replace, for example, would not result in the annual amount of plastics emitted into the oceans falling below 2016 levels.

The good news is that it is feasible. However, a bundle of different measures is necessary to reach this goal, rather than the one magic bullet. And precisely that is the challenge.

Measures being considered by legislators should ideally meet all five of the following guiding criteria:

  1. They favour the most economical use of virgin materials.
  2. They make the use of recycled plastics more economically viable than virgin materials. The price of virgin materials should include the cost of the environmental impact of their production, namely pollution and CO2 emissions.
  3. They establish an incentive system that continuously increases the share of recyclable plastics in production and use.
  4. They follow the hierarchy of the circular economy. This means that the incentive effect is strictly based on the life cycle analysis for each type of plastic and application, with the aim of keeping the hydrocarbons that are part of the polymer in the cycle for as long as possible and as energy-efficiently as possible.
  5. They prevent a situation where the increase in the price of virgin materials diverts users into alternative materials (paper, glass, metal) with a possibly worse overall ecological footprint compared to that of cleanly recycled plastics.

The following interventions can contribute to meeting these criteria:

Taxes And Duties

  • The tax of 800 euros per tonne of virgin materials used, which has already been decided at the EU level, should soon be implemented by the member states. The resulting revenue should, in contrast to what has been envisaged so far, not come into the general state budget, but be earmarked to promote research and development as well as an improved recycling infrastructure.
  • The exemption of virgin materials from the energy tax should be eliminated.
  • A trade in plastics recycling certificates — analogous to CO2 certificate trading — would result in the incentivising of recycling: Those who recycle plastics would generate ‘plastic recycling certificates’, which the manufacturers of new products would have to purchase in order to be allowed to produce a proportional amount of new plastics. This creates a market mechanism for linking recycling to the production of virgin materials.
  • The regulation already laid down in the German Packaging Act (Paragraph 21) to reward the distributors of plastic packaging for good recyclability (Paragraph 21, Section 1 (1)) or the use of recycled plastics (Paragraph 21, Section 1 (2)) needs to be reinforced. The desired incentive effect can only occur if the bonus-malus regulation of Paragraph 21 is aimed at the price of virgin materials.
  • The deposit system already commonly used for beverage bottles should be extended to other types of plastic products. This could — as already successfully practised for PET — also provide for largely ‘pure’ input streams and thus raise the quality of the recycling products for other types of plastic as well.

Quotas For Recycled Materials

  • As a yardstick for the success of the circular economy, a ‘quota for the reuse of recycled materials’ should replace the recycling rate that is common today. In the area of consumer waste, the latter today only describes the amount of plastics that are fed into a sorting process, but not the amount actually recycled and reused. Therefore, the recycling rate suggests a much higher effectiveness than is actually the case. A quota for the reuse of recycled materials, on the other hand, would provide a clearer view of the state of the circular economy.
  • Minimum use quotas for recycled materials should not be formulated in general terms, but specifically for the different types of plastic and their applications. The conditions under which plastics are produced and used vary greatly. Only with more specific quotas can the plastics processing industry contribute to the achievement of the set research and development targets — especially when it not only comes to packaging but also to technical applications of plastics.

Quality Standards And Transparency

  • Providing comprehensive documentation of properties, behaviour and performance characteristics is considerably more difficult and costly for recycled materials than for virgin materials. The plastics processing industry needs reliable information. Insufficient standards are a significant barrier to greater use of recycled materials. Therefore, the setting of standards must be promoted more forcefully. Mechanical recyclers should be partially compensated for the associated costs — counter-financed, for example, by revenues from a future plastics tax.

Research And Investment

  • The recycling industry must expand its production capacities and invest in improved processes in order to be able to meet an increasing demand resulting from the measures described here. However, it is precisely here that the lack of the necessary funds — due to the current market disadvantages of their products — is felt most keenly. This chicken-and-egg-problem needs to be solved. Tax incentives for research and development expenditures, loans at favourable conditions and an intensified call for funding programmes, among a number of other measures, could help here.

Public Procurement

  • The public sector is a major client and purchaser. Recyclable products and those with a high proportion of recycled materials should be treated preferentially in public procurement, even if this involves short-term cost increases due to the higher price of recycled materials. Such criteria should be included in all publicly awarded contracts and tenders. This would act as a signal and multiplying factor for the private sector.

Communication And Transparency

  • At present, consumers are almost only provided with information about the proportion of recycled materials in a product or packaging, if a supplier explicitly advertises a sustainably designed product as such. In the future, consumers should be informed about the recyclability of each product and packaging that they buy in an easily understandable and conspicuous manner. This information should include both the proportion of recycled materials and the recyclability after use. Furthermore, it should be explicitly stated whether the recycled plastics contained in the product actually comes from household recycling (which is still more difficult to recycle) or from the waste streams of commercial and production waste that are comparatively easier to recycle.
  • When countries, industrial companies and associations enter into long-term voluntary commitments to improve the circular economy, progress towards the promised goals should be easier to measure than now and be presented to the public with all due transparency. A cross-sectoral reporting standard can help here, as is already common practice for measuring the impact of social innovations, for example.

Restrictions On Export And Landfill

  • The export of difficult-to-recyclable plastic waste should be banned. In addition, there should be restrictions on landfilling, as close as possible to a full ban on landfilling. The latter is already a reality in Germany, but not in other EU member states.

A Holistic Mission

The key insight that the authors of the POLYPROBLEM report (which this article is part of, link below) took away from their research is: None of the interventions laid out here will work on their own. Not one measure will be sufficient to set up a circular market for plastics.

It is crucial to complement and support the market-based principle of supply and demand by wisely combined measures. It will take a comprehensive package of mutually reinforcing activities.

Sources

[1] PEW Charitable Trusts, Systemiq (2020). Breaking the Plastic Wave — A Comprehensive Assessment Of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution. https://www.systemiq.earth/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/BreakingThePlasticWave_MainReport.pdf (retrieved on 13.11.2020)

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