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“We have set something which is irreversible” – European Commission’s Katainen on circular economy agenda

31 January 2019

On 31 January, European Commission vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, addressed an international panel on the next steps for Europe’s circular economy and plastics agenda - beyond the 2019 European elections.

Also looking back at the last five years of European institutional action, Mr Katainen said that the European Union had set an “irreversible” agenda on the circular economy, with strong progress on a series of circular economy actions since the beginning of the current Commission’s mandate five years ago.

“As part of the Circular Economy Action Plan, we have had legislative changes in areas such as waste legislation, single-use plastics and fishing gear – and these will have a significant impact on the sustainability agenda,” said Mr Katainen.

“But now we have to focus on the implementation of what we have achieved. Legislation is a big challenge for many of our member states so we have to help them with this legislation.”

 “We have eight months to influence the agenda of the [current] Commission” Mr Katainen added, referring to the time remaining until the next European Commission begins its mandate in November 2019.

“The Circular Plastics Alliance is a tool for the Commission to [engage with] all aspects of the value chain. The Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform is also helping,” said Mr Katainen. The Circular Plastics Alliance, an alliance of private sector actors active in the EU, was established in Brussels in December 2018.

Revealing specific objectives for the coming years, Mr Katainen also hinted at efforts to engage with China and Japan on the circular economy agenda and on plastic packaging.

“My dream is that we create a quality standard for plastic packaging, and that China and Japan would have this too. We are working on this at the moment.”

Looking ahead beyond the EU elections and change of Commission this year, Mr Katainen said the “next flow of actions [by the European Commission] must be fed in already now.”

“Circular economy will be on the agenda of the next European Commission,” he said. “We have set something which is irreversible.”

Launched in December 2015, the Circular Economy Package put in place the conditions for Europe-wide progress on circularity in a range of areas. The package was followed by the very first Europe-wide plastics strategy, published in January 2018.

As the strategy was published, European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans said: “The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more. This is a challenge that citizens, industry and governments must tackle together. With the EU Plastics Strategy we are also driving a new and more circular business model. We need to invest in innovative new technologies that keep our citizens and our environment safe whilst keeping our industry competitive."

The panel debate ‘Beyond the 2019 Elections: what next for Europe’s circular economy and plastics agenda?’ was organised by the Aldersgate Group, and also featured representatives from SUEZ, Nestlé, Ramboll and Sky plc.

For more live updates from future events in Brussels and beyond, follow us on Twitter via @circ_economy.

Valencia, Utrecht and Alba Iulia to host PlastiCircle pilots in 2019

15 January 2019

The PlastiCircle project will move into top gear in 2019, with a series of pilot projects taking place in three European cities in the same calendar year.

In a recent interview, project co-ordinator César Aliaga said that 2019 will be a year of pilot action and innovation testing across the continent.

PlastiCircle, a Horizon 2020 project that aims to boost the quantity and quality of plastic packaging waste collected from citizens, will move into full swing as neighbourhoods in Valencia (Spain), Utrecht (the Netherlands) and Alba Iulia (Romania) all host pilot initiatives.

These initiatives aim to test plastic waste collection and transport before further work on sorting and recycling at project partner facilities.

“In countries such as Spain and Romania, plastic packaging collection rates are 75% and 59% respectively,” said Aliaga on the problems facing authorities around Europe. “With PlastiCircle, we want to increase this to 87%.”

Multiple cities, multiple innovations

In Valencia, the bustling San Marcelino neighbourhood has been earmarked for the roll-out of the project, while in Alba Iulia the pilot will take place in the city’s Goldis district.

The innovations in waste collection involve “smart containers” – with a range of advanced technologies – while transport methods will use innovative IoT and cloud platform technologies (also optimising waste collection routes).

“For waste transportation we specifically want to increase the filling levels in the containers, and of course reduce fuel consumption by the vehicles. This makes for a more economically viable way of doing things,” adds Aliaga.

Ahead of the pilots, PlastiCircle has also been working on innovations in sorting and recycling, all with the aim of producing added-value products with high recycled plastic content.

 “In terms of sorting packaging wastes at the sorting plants, PlastiCircle has the target of reducing material losses in sorting to less than 20% (whereas the average in Europe today is 25%). We also aim to improve precision in sorting to more than 95% - something which Europe isn’t achieving at the moment.”

The project is aiming for 85% content of recycled plastic in new PET products – products such as automotive parts.

A “revolution” in plastic waste treatment

According to Aliaga, 2019 will be a promising year for PlastiCircle, with the Valencia pilot to start in spring. There, waste collection in San Marcelino will take place between April and September – all kicked off with an information workshop for local residents.

The second pilot, in Utrecht, will begin in August, while Alba Iulia will see the start of its pilot in December.

The project also has a “follower” city in Velenje, Slovenia, where PlastiCircle innovations are due to be rolled out after the end of the project’s official four-year mandate.

“We are receiving continuous contacts and queries asking about the results of the project,” said Aliaga. “So I am confident that PlastiCircle can really represent a revolution in plastic waste treatment since many stakeholders and cities are just waiting for the results to be ready to be implemented.”


“An ambitious project with clear, consistent targets. We can deliver!” – César Aliaga on a critical year for PlastiCircle

14 January 2019

As the PlastiCircle project enters its most important year, project co-ordinator César Aliaga gives the lowdown on concrete targets and big plans for 2019 - when the team takes its innovations to pilot communities in Spain, the Netherlands and Romania.

PlastiCircle is one of a clutch of European Commission-funded initiatives aiming at a circular economy for plastics. What did this project set out to achieve specifically?

PlastiCircle aims to improve the quality and quantity of the packaging waste we collect, in order to boost recycling and also turn this waste into value-added products. These products might be foam boards, automotive parts, bituminous roofing membranes, garbage bags, asphalt sheets, roofing felts and urban furniture of various kinds. Now, packaging represents more than 60% of the total plastic waste generated in Europe, so we need this approach in order to achieve a circular economy for plastics more generally.

But with PlastiCircle, we also have more specific targets for the project. What we also want to achieve is to boost collection rates, the efficiency of waste transportation, the efficiency of waste sorting, and of course plastic recovery rates in Europe.

To give an idea, in countries such as Spain and Romania, plastic packaging collection rates are 75% and 59% respectively. With PlastiCircle, we want to increase this to 87%. For waste transportation we specifically want to increase the filling levels in the containers, and of course reduce fuel consumption by the vehicles. This makes for a more economically viable way of doing things.

In terms of sorting packaging wastes at the sorting plants, PlastiCircle has the target of reducing material losses in sorting to less than 20% (whereas the average in Europe today is 25%). We also aim to improve precision in sorting to more than 95% - something which Europe isn’t achieving at the moment.

And of course PlastiCircle has targets for the inclusion of recycled plastics in new products. For example, in Europe, 79% of the PET we use is recycled – PlastiCircle wants to bring this up to 85% when we are making our foam boards and automotive parts. The same applies for other waste fractions. In Europe, 43% of PE film is recycled plastic. When we make garbage bags and roofing membranes with this fraction, we want the recycled content to be 50%. So this really is an ambitious project all round, with clear, consistent targets.

What's so innovative about PlastiCircle? What added value does this project bring to the table?

The innovation in PlastiCircle is structured in four areas: collection, transport, sorting and recycling. In collection we are developing a smart container able to identify the user and compensate his or her performance in waste separation. In transport we are implementing new technologies to optimise the route taken by driver, in addition to” truck traceability” and external communication through a cloud platform.

In sorting, the project is working on new technologies able to sort even more typologies of plastics and do this with higher efficiencies (these technologies include NIR, SWIR, THz push broom scanner, whisk broom scanner, film-stabilising conveyor).

Finally, collected and sorted plastics will be used for new applications which currently use other higher quality plastics. The innovation here is to use post-consumer plastics for the manufacturing of the added-value products I mentioned previously – from automotive parts to garbage bags to urban furniture.

The first phase of PlastiCircle is almost over, with pilot projects being prepared. What is PlastiCircle going to do in its three European pilot cities?

PlastiCircle is going to test the complete approach on collection and transport in the three pilot cities: Valencia, Utrecht and Alba Iulia. Moreover, the material collected will be used for the subsequent stages of sorting and recycling developed within the project. Therefore, pilots will be a real validation of the technologies and processes being developed in the project. It should be noted that the participation of citizens is key for the pilots and therefore we are working on the preparation of a strong communications campaign.  

What are the most challenging aspects of running this innovation-driven project?

PlastiCircle is a very motivating project since it brings solutions to problems that are very well known – such as environmental problems associated with plastic waste. But it is also a real challenge getting the entire plastics value chain to work together; including waste managers, recycling companies, citizens, plastic manufacturers, researchers, cities and so forth. But the results until now are very promising and I am confident that this approach will be implemented in the EU in the following years.

Once the pilots in Valencia, Utrecht and Alba Iulia are completed, will further European cities be able to adopt PlastiCircle technologies and innovations to tackle plastic waste?

We have a “follower city” within the project: Velenje in Slovenia. This city will help the project to spread the results in central Europe. Moreover, we are receiving continuous contacts and queries asking about the results of the projects, so I am confident that PlastiCircle can really represent a revolution in plastic waste treatment since many stakeholders and cities are just waiting for the results to be ready to be implemented.

What does 2019 hold in store for PlastiCircle? What are the next steps in this project?

2019 is really a promising year for PlastiCircle since we are going to start the first pilot in Valencia in April, which will be the reference for the next pilots in Utrecht and Alba Iulia. Waste collection will take place in Valencia’s pilot neighbourhood, San Marcelino, between April to September, and at that point we will send the waste materials collected to project partners Picvisa and Axion (for sorting and recycling respectively). This first pilot will be crucial in laying the groundwork for the other pilots, and of course an effective campaign to engage citizens to take part in this pilot will be vital.

The same will apply for our efforts in Utrecht, starting in August this year, and for Alba Iulia, where we will launch the pilot in December.

Finally, in 2019 we will also be finishing some developments in the four innovation areas of the project so that we will be able to offer new results to the European Commission. The expectations are high, but we are confident we can deliver!


“Circular economy is here to stay,” EU policy expert tells PlastiCircle

8 January 2019

If 2018 was a whirlwind year in Brussels for the circular economy of plastics, 2019 promises to be very different with a changing of the guard at the European Commission and the European Parliament. To take stock of the situation for plastics in Europe, caught up with Annika Hedberg, senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC).

Why did the circular economy of plastics make it so far up the EU agenda in 2018?

To some extent, this came as a surprise. For this European Commission, looking back to 2014 and the the start of the term, circular economy in general was not a priority in the beginning. It is great to see how big the topic became in the end, and how much effort the Commission put into taking the agenda forward. Civil society certainly played an enormous role in this. If it were not for civil society, I don’t think we would be where we are today and circular economy would not have become such a priority.

Addressing the plastics challenge gained traction undoubtedly because at a high level in the Commission, it was recognised that there would be public buy-in for doing more to address the challenge. The media and the public have shown great interest in the topic this year. Thus, for the Commission, this was probably seen as an “easy win” with European citizens.

When we look at the Single-use plastics Directive, and how quickly the EU institutions came to an agreement on this… it is quite impressive and remarkable that they were able to reach an agreement by December. This demonstrates political buy-in for action. At the same time, obviously the devil is in the detail and the implementation of the Directive will be another story. Overall, the public support and the political interest for “easy wins” help to explain the push for action.

What were the main highlights from 2018 in this regard?

On the circular economy agenda, plastics were of course the number one topic in 2018. The EU Plastics Strategy [January 2018] was hugely important, with a lot of hopes pinned on that. In addition to the focus on single-use plastics, the Commission invited industry to put forward voluntary pledges on the uptake of recycled plastics. The Commission’s recent initial evaluations of the pledges show that the pledges will most probably not be enough: more needs to be done to develop a market for recycled plastics and the pledges may need to be coupled with additional, possibly regulatory, measures. What was not yet properly addressed in 2018 was the question of micro-plastics, as the work on this is ongoing.

In 2019, what comes next in the Brussels bubble for the circular economy?

The issue with the policy agenda in Brussels in 2019 is that everyone is gearing up to finalise this term – this Commission, this Parliament. The Parliament is starting to prepare for the spring elections, and the different departments in the Commission are starting to reflect on their agendas and suggestions for the next Commission.  So whatever needs to happen this term must happen now! The year 2019 is mainly a period of reflection on the wishes for the next Commission and the next Parliament.

On micro-plastics, the European Chemicals Agency is looking into this and the expectation is that it will release a restriction proposal on microplastics in the beginning of 2019. When exactly this will happen and what the following steps will be, we shall see. The time is running out for bringing substantial new proposals for debate this term.

However, in getting across the messages on political priorities for the next Commission and the Parliament, 2019 is important. It is important to ensure that there is buy-in and understanding that circular economy is here to stay and more needs to be done to get that transition going. And of course there are issues that this Commission has not been able to consider. One such issue is the role of digitalisation in supporting the transition to the circular economy – something we are working on at the European Policy Centre. The Commission itself has recognised that it has failed to address this. So now is the time to start having that discussion; what it is that we want the next Commission to look at and prioritise next term.