THE CHALLENGE

Modern societies have to change the way they deal with plastics

 

Over the past 50 years, the annual production of plastics has increased from 15 to 335 million tonnes. Consumers have benefited enormously from plastic’s numerous functionalities. It provides us with light- weight housings for consumer electronics, a multitude of containers for preserving food, car interiors, insulating materials, and a seemingly endless variety of attractive bottles for drinks and detergents. The need to reduce the quantities of materials used has compelled the plastics industry to be continuously inventive and create multi-layer applications, modify polymer chemistries, and develop highly functional additives. Unfortunately, this tremendous diversity has a huge downside in the later stages of the product’s life cycle.

Recycling plastics is a complex challenge

 

Because of the diversity of plastics, there are many difficulties associated with recycling process itself as well as the challenge of source-separation by consumers. Even if waste plastics are collected in the correct pathway, the huge variety of chemical compositions makes closed-loop recycling extremely difficult. As a result, the numbers for recycling are still up for improvement. In Europe, the annual demand for plastics is around 50 million tonnes, of which 25.8 million tonnes end up as waste each year, of which less than 30% is collected for recycling [1] and only 1% is reused as a secondary raw material in new high-end applications.

Plastic waste creates huge environmental damage

 

Far too much waste plastic ends up in the environment. The general public is aware of this, as well as of the associated economic and environmental problems. An estimated 5 to 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year [2]. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean will contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish [3]. Less obvious is the problem of microplastics, generated by plastic bottles and the like as they degrade and accumulate in the seas and oceans.

[1] RDC Environment, 2017: https://outofuse.com/websites/1/uploads/ files/2665_MinistrieIM_2017-08-03_Ecodesign_Final%20report%20_vF.pdf

[2] Jambeck et al, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 2015.

[3] New Plastics Economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016

THE OPPORTUNITY

Society needs to be smarter

We must consider the whole lifecycle of plastics, in which the different phases of the lifecycle take into account the preceding and following stages in the lifecycle. This more circular, and smarter economy for plastics has tremendous potential for Europe. Closing the cycle on plastics could reduce import dependency by 80% in terms of fossil fuels for plastics production. Similarly, the mechanical recycling of plastic waste produces less than 20% of the CO2 emissions associated with making new plastics [4]. Together with steel, aluminum and cement, plastics have been identified as one of the most promising materials to reduce the carbon footprint in Europe. Furthermore, the circular economy for plastics is expected to create around 200,000 jobs by 2030 [5].

Europe is now taking the lead in circularity for plastics

In 2015 the European Commission introduced the Circular Economy Package, which includes measures that will stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy, with plastics being one of the key elements as crystallised in the 2018 Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. This is being rolled out with steps like the re- cent agreement on the Single Use Plastics proposal and the EU’s launch of the New Plastics Alliance, which will be ‘an alliance of key industry stakeholders covering the full plastics value chain as part of its persisting efforts to reduce plastics littering, increase the share of recycled plastics and stimulate market innovation.’ C-PlaNeT will train the research professionals needed for such key industry stakeholders.

[4] Huysman Debaveye Schaubroeck De Meester Ardente Mathieux,F. Dewulf, J. The recyclability benefit rate of closed-loop and open-loop sys- tems: A case study on plastic recycling in Flanders. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 101, 53-60, 2015.

[5] The European Commission, Strategy for Plastics in a Circular 2018.

 

© 2019 Ghent University

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 859885.