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Pathways for a Circular Plastic System

WWF recently released a report highlighting a pathway for a circular plastic system in Germany. The report highlights several core interventions which can enable a system to change towards a more circular plastic system. In this blog post, we have condensed parts of the information into general principles which can be used in other European countries as well.

1 – Eliminate & Minimize

This can be done by:

  1. Eliminating unnecessary packaging, or producing the packaging from an easily compostable, edible or environment-friendly material” (i.e. abolish the need to recycle the material after use).

  2. Reduce the use of plastic packaging for each product without sacrificing user convenience or plastic functionality, for example, reduction of over-packaging.

2- Reuse

More reliance on single-use plastics means a higher risk of single-use plastics entering land and ocean environments. Bringing down plastic waste while providing profitability through reusable items represents the biggest opportunity towards circularity. For example, lowering the demand for single-use plastics can be done by replacing them with reusable options. These options can either be owned by the user and managed by the user or through new delivery models.

3- Design for recycling

Multi-polymer & flexible plastic materials are responsible for approximately 45% of plastic waste and they represent much of the waste that is open-loop recycled or waste-to-energy incinerated. Often such plastic material loses its value after one short use cycle.

Designing proper packaging increases the recyclability yield and the value of plastic materials. In the opinion of the plastic industry experts, it is possible to shift 90% of multilayer materials to flexible or rigid mono-materials, without compromising the advantages found in multi-materials. Synchronizing polymers, closures, additives, and colors, can further increase the yield and value of recyclates.

4- Increasing collection and sorting

It has been seen that better sorting and collection might increase open-loop recycling outputs by 6%. Recyclables such as paper, aluminum & plastic packaging should be collected separately from MSW (municipal solid waste) as well as from industrial sources, creating relatively clean waste streams. It is also important to separate the plastic streams into plastic material types since differentiated plastic material streams are considered necessary for keeping the value of the material intact.

5- Food grade plastics

Food grade (FG) plastic packaging layout is a way to make food safe, shelf-stable, reliable, and clean. FG plastics are responsible for one of the most challenging application groups: they must follow strict health and safety standards, they need the most complex barriers to protect the packaged food, and they are often the most contaminated plastic packaging after use. The type of FG plastic packaging depends on various factors, such as the intended use of the packaging, where the food is purchased, and the timeline for consuming the food product.

The recyclability of FG plastic packaging can improve through some action like standards and separated collection for food-grade plastic rigid. If there is an update on the FG regulation by the European Foods and Safety Agency (EFSA) might create an opportunity to use food-grade plastic recyclates as input material for FG packaging, and thus enable a ‘like to like’ recycling. In terms and conditions, this recycling would require separated waste streams of FG packaging.

6- Recycling markets

Plastics recycling is one of the important aspects of the transformation towards a green, circular market. With plastic recycling, Europe can break down its reliance on virgin resources and move towards a more sustainable economy. is marketplace that facilitates such a transition.

However, markets for recycled plastic materials are stifled, resulting in shallow use of recyclates in the packaging industry. Recycling markets are facing challenges such as the lack of high-quality plastic material supply, with certified and defined quality, traceable through its life cycle and recycling process.

Another challenge is the fact that recyclates face structural cost drawbacks in comparison to virgin plastics which are often produced in large quantities, with integrated plants, and thus have a fixed cost. Recyclates conversely, are prepared in small to medium-sized, decentralized plants, with huge functional expenses and less scalability.

Additionally, virgin costs are highly associated with the cost of raw petroleum, while recycling costs are generally fixed while the market price is volatile. Therefore, recyclates face underlying financial stumbling blocks, resulting in absence of interest and investments to scale consequently resulting in the lack of volumes and quality needed for a change to a circular packaging economy.

Source: WWF - Pathways to a circular plastic packaging system in Germany


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