It was 2013 in southern India when Toby McCartney, then a charity worker, saw people setting fire to diesel-soaked balls of waste plastics to form a hard lump for patching potholes. He wondered if he could come up with a safe, commercial version of the approach.
Back home in the U.K., he formed a company, MacRebur, which has since developed a patented mix of waste plastic that works as a binder and replaces some bitumen in road asphalt.
“We use waste plastics to add into an asphalt mix to create a stronger, longer-lasting, pothole-free road,” McCartney says. Asphalt producers only need to use 10 kg of MacRebur’s plastic pellets in each metric ton of asphalt to provide a step-up in road strength.
MacRebur’s use of waste plastics is, however, highly unusual. And that, according to Europe’s plastics recycling industry, is because for the most part, markets for mixed plastic waste don’t exist. Once plastic waste is combined in the postconsumer waste stream, most of the characteristics valued in individual plastics—such as elasticity, finish, color, and strength—are lost. And it can cost more to use recycled feedstocks than virgin petrochemical ones.
In an attempt to fix this disincentive and a plethora of inefficiencies involved in collecting and sorting plastic waste, in January the European Commission introduced its first Europe-wide plastics recycling plan.
Europe’s leading plastics production and recycling associations say they will support the initiative. But the use of recycled plastics threatens the business of making virgin plastics, and critics say European chemical producers have a history of making empty promises about solving the plastic waste problem. This time, the EC says, it will impose an EU-wide plastics tax if necessary.
The bottom line of the EC’s new plan is that by 2030, all plastic packaging used in the region should be recyclable. By the same date, the EC wants to recycle 55% of plastic packaging waste, which makes up about two-thirds of all plastic waste generated in the region.
To meet these targets, the EC aims to introduce new standards for plastics that simplify the recycling process. “The problem is that now we have too many different plastics that, when put together, are not easy to separate or recycle,” Jyrki Katainen, the commission’s vice president for jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness, said at a recent conference in Brussels. The EC will also look closely at improving the sorting of plastics as well as the handling of biomaterials, Katainen said.
Europe has a long way to go, though, before the majority of its plastics are recycled. Currently, most of the EU’s growing volume of plastic waste—totaling 25 million metric tons per year—is burned, placed in landfills, or shipped out of the region. About 30% is recycled.
Not a great performance, but better than in the U.S. According to the latest data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 9.5% of postconsumer plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2014. About 15% was burned, and the rest ended up in landfills.
Some plastics do not biodegrade for hundreds of years, can leach chemicals, and can harm wildlife. A substantial amount of plastic waste from Europe—as well as other regions—is finding its way into the ocean, with potentially adverse consequences for marine ecosystems.
Indeed, the scale of the marine plastics problem is starting to become apparent. A study published recently by scientists at the National University of Ireland indicates that 73% of deepwater fish in the northwest Atlantic Ocean contain microplastics in their guts (Front. Mar. Sci. 2018, DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00039).
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based environmental organization promoting a circular economy, by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by mass.
And a 2015 study of seabirds by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, concludes that the threat of plastic pollution is global, pervasive, and increasing.
In an attempt to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean, the EC says it will ban the use of plastic particles in single-use products such as cosmetics. It will also ban all oxo-degradable plastics—plastics that break down with the help of oxidizing additives—because they may degrade into small particles that can enter the aquatic environment. EU-funded research is under way to determine how to reduce the huge volume of plastic fibers entering the water from household laundry activity.
The problem of plastics in oceans is global, but Europe also faces an on-land crisis resulting from a ban by China this year on the import of plastics for recycling. China had been receiving 95% of Ireland’s plastic waste and typically 30–40% of the plastic waste from other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K.
A small share of plastics are recycled, while large amounts enter the environment.
billion metric tons: Amount of plastic produced worldwide to date
Share of energy needed to produce recycled plastics versus new plastics
billion metric tons: Amount of waste plastics generated worldwide
Share of recycled plastic in Coca-Cola bottles
Year when plastic will exceed fish in the ocean by mass
million metric tons: Amount of plastic entering the world’s oceans every year from land
metric tons: Amount of microplastics released into the environment every year in the EU
Sources: University of Georgia, Environmental Protection Agency, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Balance, National Geographic, Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency
The EC aims to fundamentally change the way Europe recycles plastics by drawing together plastics producers, users, and recyclers. This mirrors an approach in development since May 2016 by the New Plastics Economy (NPE), a Europe-centric nonprofit organization set up by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. NPE has about 50 participants, including plastics producers BASF and Borealis and consumer goods firms Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. The group has given itself three years to set a global protocol to encourage markets for used plastics.
On its own, Unilever has made a commitment to use 100% recyclable plastics in its packaging by 2025. The firm says it will publish the full list of plastic materials used in its packaging by 2020 to help create a standard for the industry.
BASF says it is working with NPE so it can collaborate with other players in the plastics supply chain and become more innovative in areas including product design and production processes. In this way, the firm can extend the lifetime of plastics as well as their smart recovery afterward, says Dirk Voeste, BASF’s vice president of sustainability strategy.
New recycling technologies, such as the cracking of plastic waste into raw materials for the chemical industry, will be required to recover those materials that are not recycled today, says Jürgen Becky, who runs BASF’s performance materials business. These approaches require chemistry know-how, meaning chemical companies would remain technology partners even when material is fully recycled, Becky says.
But BASF also warns that closing the circle and recycling all plastics will require chemical companies to adopt new business models. The circular economy will bring transformational changes to their value chains. Rather than just a plastic, firms could sell a full lifecycle service for that product.
Scope of ambition
The costs could be huge. Meeting the EU’s recycling targets would require $10 billion to $20 billion of investment in collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure, Becky says.
Yet the EU has pledged just $120 million from its Horizon 2020 research program to fund innovations in plastics recycling, including new systems for removing hazardous substances and contaminants.
NPE emphasizes that better technologies to improve recycling and reduce the use of plastics in the first place are essential. “Our research has shown 30% of today’s plastic packaging needs fundamental redesign or innovation, otherwise it will never be reused, recycled or composted,” says Sander Defruyt, New Plastics Economy lead.
The group recently chose to assist 12 companies and academic teams to help make their technologies market ready. They include Delta, a U.K. firm making seaweed-derived edible or water-soluble sachets for restaurants; Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research, which has developed an organic coating for making fresh-food packaging compostable; and the Czech firm MIWA, which is helping enable grocery delivery without single-use packaging.
The EU is also funding a series of pilot initiatives aimed at diverting plastics from landfills by more efficiently separating mixed plastics into specific types. For example, Aimplas, a plastics technology center in Valencia, Spain, is testing projects to separate waste polyethylene and polystyrene in Spain, Italy, and Hungary so the materials can be reused.
After the pilot phase, the aim is to roll out the program in 250 cities across Europe. Within five years of its introduction, the initiative is expected to reduce plastic waste by 70,000 metric tons and generate savings of $13 million annually.
While such projects are laudable, this would reduce Europe’s growing plastic waste mountain by less than 1%. The EU should be more ambitious, according to environmental groups.
“We need to start phasing out and banning the worst plastic types and unnecessary, single-use plastics now, not in over 10 years’ time,” says Tatiana Luján, a wildlife lawyer for one such group, ClientEarth.
Another criticism of the EC’s strategy is that it fails to address the problem that some plastics contain hazardous substances. “Many dangerous substances like lead and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate are already knowingly present in plastics. The EC is aware of this, but these substances aren’t mentioned in the strategy. This must become a priority,” says Apolline Roger, head of ClientEarth’s chemicals campaign.
Some plastics industry analysts criticize the EU’s lack of ambition. “It may be a missed opportunity to take the lead in bringing about the seismic change required,” says Helen McGeough, a senior consultant for the market research firm PCI Wood Mackenzie.
Even if Europe’s collectors and sorters can provide a bountiful supply of quality recycled material, the firm notes, Europe still needs to build the capacity to recycle the material. Notably, if the packaging plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is to be reused in food-contact applications, mere cleaning and remelting aren’t enough. Companies must retrofit existing polymer plants so that the plastic can be depolymerized and reformed into pure polymer.
“This process, though, remains more difficult to operate than using virgin raw materials and so comes at a potential cost,” says Phil Marshall, head of polyester for PCI Wood Mackenzie.
The EU target assumes that a supply of quality recyclables and an adequate capacity for depolymerization will be in place in seven to 10 years. “It is hard to see how either the technology, or scale, is able to come close to the aspirations of policy-makers, legislators, or brand owners,” Marshall says.
Despite the scale of the challenge, PlasticsEurope, a plastics producers association, says its members are committed to meeting the EC’s targets. They have also agreed to a voluntary program to recycle 60% of plastics by 2030 and 100% by 2040.
Environmental groups are skeptical of such promises, which they say haven’t been kept in the past. “Members of the European Parliament, national governments, and the EC will have to keep cool heads and be wise to any attempts to water down what comes out of the strategy that many industry groups will push for,” says Meadhbh Bolger, resources justice campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. “These will include shiny voluntary commitments and pledges in place of real legislation.”
The EC has drafted its first strategy aimed at creating a sustainable recycling industry with a market for used plastics. It set the following goals.
▸ All plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable.
▸ More than half of plastic packaging waste is recycled.
▸ Sorting and recycling capacity is increased fourfold since 2015.
Broad plastics recycling goals:
▸ Innovative materials and alternative feedstocks for plastics production are developed.
▸ The plastics value chain is far more integrated.
▸ Substances hampering recycling processes are replaced or phased out.
▸ Chemical producers work with plastics recyclers to develop high-value applications for their output.
▸ Plastic waste generation is decoupled from growth.
In fact, the EC is suggesting that this time, a voluntary approach may not be the way to go. Instead, it is considering introducing an EU-wide tax on virgin plastics.
“One of the issues is whom we should tax,” EC’s Katainen said. “The one buying the raw material for plastic, the plastic producer, the consumer? Or would it be better just to tax oil, which is used for plastics and other purposes?” The EC may formally propose a plastics tax during its annual financial meeting in May.
As government priorities shift, virgin plastics producers are considering recycling. Late last year, LyondellBasell Industries, one of Europe’s largest producers of polypropylene and polyethylene, joined with Suez, a big waste management firm, to buy a 50% stake in Quality Circular Polymers (QCP), a Dutch plastics recycler. The transaction marks the first time a major chemical company has partnered with a leading resource management firm to recycle materials, LyondellBasell says.
QCP already has systems and technology that enable it to make new plastics from recycled feedstock at a profit, the firm says. In 2018, QCP expects to convert consumer waste into 35,000 metric tons of polypropylene and high-density polyethylene. Suez is handling waste collection, LyondellBasell the sales and technical side.
The QCP operation is fairly small, but LyondellBasell sees it as the start of bigger things to come. “Recycled and reused plastics are a great product offering for European polyolefin customers, and we believe demand for these products will increase in the future,” says Bruno Héry, director of government relations for LyondellBasell.
European plastics recyclers are stepping up their investment in new capacity in Europe, according to the industry. “The EC’s plastics strategy and the Chinese import ban have already [created] a positive impact, as we see an acceleration of new projects across Europe,” says Ton Emans, president of Plastics Recyclers Europe, an industry association.
European consumers are also becoming more concerned about plastic waste as they learn more about plastic in the ocean and on land. The Dutch chain Ekoplaza recently became the first European food retailer to offer an aisle of products free from plastic packaging. And a plethora of other European companies are tapping the zeitgeist by unveiling plans to reduce or avoid single-use plastic packaging.
MacRebur’s asphalt innovation has shown that—with a little creativity—mixed waste plastics can be recycled. The problem is that products made from mixed plastics rarely capture the full value of the original material. This “downcycling” is seen as a temporary stop for plastic waste before it ends up in a landfill. Europe’s regulators have greater ambitions and many reasons to overhaul plastics recycling to enable molecules to be used repeatedly.
The region has a paucity of oil and gas and a reluctance to embrace hydraulic fracturing, as the U.S. has. Plastics recycling could be part of the solution. Currently, plastic waste is valued at between $85 billion and $128 billion; 95% of that is lost globally every year, according to the EC’s Katainen. A substantial share of this value could be recovered in the EU, he says.
The EC also estimates that making Europe the world’s most effective plastics recycler could create 200,000 new jobs.
Although it will take years of investment in new technology and infrastructure to turn Europe’s plastics industry into a full-circle recycling service, pressure for change is building. Plastics producers that don’t buy into the EC’s recycling vision should expect a bumpy ride.