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“What we want is to make plastics circular,” environment chief tells World Circular Economy Forum

23 October 2018

Some 95 per cent of the value of plastics is lost to the economy each year because Europe is not reusing or recycling enough, an international audience heard today in Japan.

Today at the World Circular Economy Forum in Japan, a global audience of experts, business leaders and policy makers heard that in the European Union (EU), 105 billion euros of value is lost each year due to a lack of plastics reuse and recycling – some 95 per cent of the value of plastics in the EU.

Daniel Calleja, director general of the European Commission’s DG Environment, told a packed session in Yokohama that plastic reuse and recycling rates in the bloc remain stubbornly low compared with other materials, but that the EU institutions continue to tackle the issue head on.

“The plastics sector in the EU is a very strategic sector,” Mr Calleja told the forum’s session on Circular Economy for Plastics.

“The sector employs 1.5 million people and has a turnover of 340 billion euros, but plastic is also at the origin of serious environmental issues,” he said, adding that in the EU and beyond, decision makers are exploring ways to make the plastic sector circular, save resources and “reduce plastic leakage into the environment”.

According to the European Commission, 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated annually in the EU, with less than 30 per cent collected adequately.

For its part, the European Commission has recently introduced a raft of proposals and concrete legislation in recent months to address the plastics challenge within and outwith the bloc.

In January 2018, the EU adopted a Plastics Strategy to ensure that by 2030, all plastic packaging put into the market is reusable or recyclable. Plastic packaging comprises the largest type of plastic waste in the EU.

Mr Calleja also told the forum that single-use plastics would be restricted where there are no alternatives, and that a “restriction dossier” was being prepared for micro-plastics that are intentionally added in products. “We are taking regulatory action at the European level,” said Mr Calleja, “but also at the level of the G7, G20 and within the United Nations to combat plastic pollution. Only international efforts will be able to deliver.”

The environmental policy chief added that innovation would be a key tool in delivering circularity for the European plastics sector – with heavy investment to follow.

“In the coming years we are spending more than 350 million euros in order to promote innovative solutions linked to plastics. We’ll be looking at design and circularity. We do not want to demonise plastics; what we want is to make plastics circular, to make sure we can recycle and reuse them.”

Mr Calleja’s comments echoed those of other international participants in today’s session, all keen to emphasise the link of smart product designs to improving circularity in the sector.

“In Germany we have good collection and sorting systems but this is not enough,” said German environment ministry speaker Regina Dube. “We should also improve packaging design to get to a circular economy.”

In the Europe, the EU’s innovation drive is notably being supported by the bloc’s research and innovation agenda, and the Horizon 2020 programme.

Multi-million euro initiatives including the CIRC-PACK and PlastiCircle projects are being driven forward to improve the circularity of plastic packaging, promote innovations in collection and sorting and boost the production of added value products from recycled plastic packaging waste.

With global plastics production set to double in the next 20 years, the need for regulation, partnerships with the private sector, and strategic investment in circular economy solutions is becoming ever more urgent.

Today's session at the World Circular Economy Forum was co-organised by the Japanese Ministry for the Environment, the Finnish innovation fund Sitra, and the European Commission.

Could Innovative Plastics be in Line for Procurement Boost in Europe?

9 October 2018

On 3-5 October 2018, the PlastiCircle project was present at the EcoProcura conference for public procurement and innovation professionals from around Europe.

Projects such as PlastiCircle and CIRC-PACK, another Horizon 2020 project aiming for a circular economy for plastic packaging, were represented among a clutch of circular economy experts looking to assess future opportunities for future innovative products, including high-quality recycled and bio-based plastics.

EcoProcura, held in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, was a timely reminder that public procurement accounts for some 14 per cent of GDP in the European Union, and as such represents a sizeable potential market for materials with sound environmental credentials.

According to Dr John Watt, sustainable economy and procurement officer at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, public procurement could have an “important role” in enabling the transition from single-use plastic and fossil resource-based plastics – currently an imperative at the European level.

“In addition to packaging, plastics are used extensively for products in sectors such as furniture, electronics and construction,” added Dr Watt.

“If public authorities set procurement requirements for plastics to include an amount of recycled and bio-based content, it would help boost the market demand for such solutions.”

The pan-European PlastiCircle project, which aims to develop new added-value, recycled plastic products for the market, will continue to monitor developments in public procurement at the European level.

Europe’s Towns and Cities in Line for CIRC-PACK Benefits

2 October 2018

Europe’s towns and cities stand to make real gains from new knowledge and innovations in plastic packaging, according to CIRCE’s Montserrat Lanero in a new interview.

Montserrat Lanero, project manager for the CIRC-PACK project and at Zaragoza-based research centre CIRCE, has told that local authorities across Europe could benefit long-term from knowledge transfer and key recommendations that CIRC-PACK will produce for municipalities.

As part of the European Union’s circular economy objectives, the CIRC-PACK project is applying new innovations to plastic packaging design (to improve sorting and recycling), and for the production of new bio-based, biodegradable plastics from renewable resources – as opposed to finite fossil fuels. It is hoped the innovations will ‘close the loop’ on plastics in the environment, and go some way to alleviating Europe’s plastic problem.

Ms Lanero said that across Europe, local authorities with low rates of recovery of plastic waste – and especially plastic packaging – had become an issue, but projects like CIRC-PACK “could help through knowledge transfer”, boost recovery and recycling rates, and raise awareness of circular economy principles.

“In terms of the environmental impact of plastic packaging, CIRC-PACK can really increase awareness among consumers in Europe’s towns and cities, but also among local authorities and public administrations,” said Ms Lanero.

“These actors could certainly benefit from project recommendations and enhance their current policies on plastic packaging.”

Each year in the European Union, more than 25 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced by EU member countries – the majority of which is plastic packaging. Less than a third of plastic waste is recycled.

Asked what consumers could expect from projects such as CIRC-PACK, Ms Lanero said that the advent of biodegradable plastic materials, made from bio-based renewable resources, would prove crucial.

“With CIRC-PACK, we have been collaborating with consumers since the very beginning of the project to take into account their expectations of future products and what they want to see from us and other actors in the ‘lower impact’ packaging market.”

“In the end, we will have more useful materials and better quality materials. This is key for consumers and the environment.”

Among multiple European initiatives to close the loop on plastics, CIRC-PACK is a three-year initiative funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The project aims to transform the plastic packaging value chain from a linear to a circular value chain, and transform waste to resource by producing new added-value products for a range of sectors (such as the automotive and hygienic product sectors).

The full interview with Ms Lanero is online.

Smart Containers to Reward People for Recycling Properly

18 September 2018

Smart recycling containers that reward people for proper use could help drive up the rate of plastic recycling, reducing the amount of plastic that goes into oceans and landfill, and creating business opportunities out of the challenge to cut back on waste.

(This article appeared in Horizon 2020 magazine on 5 June 2018 - Author: Joe Dodgshun)

It’s part of a wave of innovations aiming to keep plastic circulating in the economy, which also include a way to turn empty bottles back into raw materials and a new supply chain model enabling the recycling of plastics from electronic waste.

Cesar Aliaga from the ITENE Research Centre in Valencia, Spain, says that it’s a challenge that can only be tackled if everyone in the recycling industry works together — and the first step is to encourage people to recycle properly.

He coordinates a project called PlastiCircle, which is developing a smart container for apartment buildings or neighbourhoods with the aim of increasing the proportion of waste that is recycled and reducing the amount sent to landfill.

‘The aim of the smart collection container is to make it easier for citizens to separate waste,’ said Aliaga, ‘but also to tell who is doing it well and to reward them for this behaviour.’

Equipped with arrays of sensors, the containers will be able to sense the quality and quantity of the waste deposited, as well as who is doing the depositing.


As an incentive, those people or neighbourhoods separating waste correctly could receive benefits like reduced city rubbish taxes or decide to spend such savings on community projects.

But a smart container is just the start — once sensors in the container detect it’s full enough, they alert the waste truck, which is optimised for efficiency with both compacting systems and pickup routes based on container and city data fed into a cloud platform.

Aliaga says the project’s partners are developing an innovative sorting system to more efficiently separate the different plastics collected, combining a range of scanning and imaging technologies with the near-infrared sensing traditionally used to sort plastics.

‘About 30% of plastic is recycled, but with (most) packaging waste this material is currently only used for low-end applications,’ said Aliaga.

‘There is plenty of room to boost reuse of plastics and our idea is to use this in new, high-value applications ... such as automotive parts with Centro Ricerche FIAT, roofing membranes, garbage bags and high-quality urban furniture,’ he said.

PlastiCircle will, in the next few years, launch project pilots in neighbourhoods of Valencia, Alba lulia in Romania, and Utrecht in the Netherlands.

If successful, initiatives like this could be vital for hitting the EU’s strategic goals for plastics in a circular economy, which aim for all plastics packaging to be recyclable by 2030, in addition to a proposed crackdown banning single-use plastics, like straws and cotton buds.

The 2030 targets essentially require that plastic is kept in circulation, with waste products being turned into new resources circulating in biological and technical loops.

Sadly, the current reality is far from circular. Less than 30% of the more than 25.8 million tonnes of plastic Europe produces every year is recycled.


Even ignoring the huge CO2 emissions and environmental impacts this has, let alone the need for oil as an input for the majority of these plastics, Europe is sitting on a potential goldmine — the plastic material lost every year represents €10.56 billion in wasted resources.

Garbo is an Italian company that’s trying to prove there’s good money in making plastic circular. They are tweaking a chemical process known as glycolysis to recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET), very often the base element of plastic bottles.

The current problem, says Garbo’s general director Fabio Fizzotti, is that only a small percentage of recycled PET pellets can be used in new bottles, while the low demand for coloured PET bottles and other PET waste sees this go to landfill or incinerators.

Under a project called ChemPET, which finished last year, Garbo found it could efficiently use glycolysis to dissolve and break down PET-containing plastics into a form that can be used to create new PET bottles without the need for any virgin plastic.

‘Technically speaking, we can recycle any kind of PET, and in the long-term such recovered materials must be cheaper — you cannot convince people to create a project without (an) economic reason,’ said Fizzotti. ‘But in Italy, people have to pay several hundred euros per tonne to burn the waste, so at that point, we can be competitive with virgin plastics.’

With a successful trial run out of the way, Fizzotti says the right funding could see Garbo opening its first plant capable of treating 50 tonnes per day within six months, thanks to its experience and facilities for glycolysis recycling of silicon powders for the solar industry.

He says this could expand to 100 tonnes per day with further partners and easily be scaled to factories across Europe, with no lack of raw materials available in the EU.

‘The amount of refuse in Europe is so high that 100 tonnes per day is just a small part of the pie. Even looking at black, carbon-coloured bottles, these are not recoverable with normal recycling methods and there are huge amounts of this just being burnt for thermal recovery.’

However, one of the biggest sources of unrecycled plastic is waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Europeans throw away, on average, 16.6 kg of plastic WEEE every year, with the bloc annual total expected to reach 12 million tonnes by 2020.


According to Violeta Nikolova of the United Nations University in Bonn, Germany, one of the barriers to recycling WEEE is that there are outdated misconceptions about the value, quality and attractiveness of recycled plastics.

‘For costs and benefits, for example, investing in recycled plastics would soon be essentially the same as investing in virgin plastics, with the difference of being able to tap into a fast-growing e-waste stream that contains billions of euros worth of plastic materials,’ says Nikolova.

She works on the PolyCE project, which is aiming to create a circular economy supply chain for WEEE plastics. Over the next three years, the project, which is led by the Fraunhofer Institute IZM in Berlin, Germany, will develop a grading system for recycling plastics based on their material properties and potential applications, and draw up guidelines for designing new electronics with recycled plastics. 

Their work includes technical innovations such as the development of a purer recycled plastic that removes toxic flame-retardants — thus creating a product appealing to the whole supply chain, from designers to consumers.

The project is also developing attractive, colourful demo products to prove that recycled plastics are no longer the grey, inferior products of yesteryear. The specific ideas are still under wraps but partners include Dutch electronics firm Philips, American appliance manufacturer Whirlpool and Finnish start-up Circular Devices.

Nikolova says the role of this in winning over consumers and product designers is important as then companies will begin to sit up and take notice.

‘Once you have the buy-in from the consumer, this is key as bigger companies will then take the lead in introducing recycled products, followed by competitors and smaller businesses in the supply chain — and then policy-driven incentives help with scaling this recycling up.’


(This article appeared in Horizon 2020 magazine on 5 June 2018 / Author: Joe Dodgshun)