EU focuses on a sustainable and circular plastics system

“The challenges posed by plastics are to a large extent due to the fact that our production and consumption systems are not sustainable.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have amplified public attention for the plastic waste crisis we face.

“It is clear that the best way is to shift to a fundamentally sustainable and circular plastics economy, where we use plastics much more wisely and better reuse and recycle them.

“Moreover, producing plastics from renewable raw materials should be the starting point.”

These are not the words of a climate activist, but from Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, introducing their new Report last week.

He was also accompanied on the Friends of Europe webinar by Sarah Nelen, Deputy Head of Cabinet of Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans, and Sander Defruyt, Lead for New Plastics Economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The report focuses on three key areas for future action – the smarter use of plastics, increased circularity, and the use of renewable raw materials  – with the aim of achieving a sustainable and circular plastics system. Separately, the EEA has also set out its ideas for enabling circular business models.

This notes that Europe is now moving through the second stage of the process:

  • Stage 1. Circular goals, such as reuse, repair and recycle, need to be agreed on by policymakers. In the EU, this has already been done.
  • Stage 2. New business models need to be developed through innovation by companies.
  • Stage 3. Technical and/or social innovation in companies and society then need to go hand in hand with business model innovation

The good news is that the EU’s conclusions map on very well to last month’s ’Sustainable plastics strategy’ from the major European plastics associations, Cefic (the European Chemical Industry Council), PlasticsEurope, the European Plastics Converters, and the European Composites, Plastics and Polymer Processing Platform. As it noted:

“Plastic waste is ending up in the environment. Unmanaged, it is amongst the greatest global environmental challenges of our time. As an industry, we believe plastic waste in the environment is unacceptable and represents a massive loss of a valuable resource.

“One of the keys to tackling plastic waste is the creation of a circular economy. In contrast to the make, use, then dispose, of linear economy; in a circular economy we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their life.

“The circular economy is about recognising and capturing the value of plastics as a resource, with the least impact on the climate. We have over recent years accelerated the transition to a circular economy, amongst other actions.”

And as the chart shows from the Strategy, chemical recycling technologies such as pyrolysis and solvolysis also have clear advantages in terms of CO2 emissions versus incineration, even when this includes energy recovery.

Both documents also support the conclusions of the World Economic Forum’s CEO Task Force on ‘Building back better’, where I was an expert adviser.  We argued in September there was an urgent need to:

“Stimulate a new wave of innovation through a collaborative ecosystem. By engaging with value chain partners, governments and start-ups, the chemical industry can build an ecosystem that drives the next wave of innovation.

“To make this happen, chemical leaders can partner with start-ups to tap into new sources of (digital) innovation. For example, in the recycling space alone, there are hundreds of relevant start-ups across the world that are working with new technologies – but these cannot scale without additional funding.

“The time is ripe for a new wave of corporate and public venturing to accelerate the process of bringing these technologies to the market.”

It seems that governments, regulators and industry associations are now aligned about the need to move forward. Now we need companies to step up the plate, in alliance with their value chain and financial partners. Time is limited, and the industry must be able to demonstrate real progress before COP26 in November.

The time for small-scale experiments is now past. We have to start investing the hundreds of millions of dollars that are needed to create the circular economy of the future, and preserve the plastics industry’s key role on the global economy.

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