Informing the EU strategy was a major report from the The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. This is a detailed report that highlights the problems associated with plastics, particularly single use plastics used in packaging that is the main focus of the report and offering potential solutions to the problem.
Over the past 40 years plastics production has doubled and is ‘expected to double again in 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050.’ About 25% production is used for packaging and this is where the main increase will take place. The following figures below show the increase and the categories of plastic used in packaging.
The report points out that waste recovery is poor with only 14% of plastic packaging actually recycled:
When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower-value applications that are not again recyclable after use.
In addition a further 14% is incinerated. There is a prevailing argument that incineration can incorporate energy recovery. But as the report points out:
While recovering energy is a good thing in itself, this process still loses the embedded effort and labour that went into creating the material. For energy recovery in mixed solid waste incinerators, in particular, there are also concerns that over-deployment of such incineration infrastructure can create a ‘lock-in’ effect that, because of the large capital investments but relatively low operating costs involved in building up and running such infrastructure, can effectively push higher-value mechanisms such as recycling out of the market. Many organisations have also raised concerns about the pollutants that are generated during energy recovery processes, which can have direct negative health effects if adequate pollution controls are not in place, as is often the case in the developing world.
Also, even if appropriate pollution controls are in place, the resulting by-products need to be disposed of.
About 6% of global oil production is used for plastics manufacture. If business as usual persists, this will increase. This figure doesn’t include a shift to shale gas feedstocks from fracking:
If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the consumption of oil by the entire plastics sector will account for 20% of the total consumption by 2050. The use of oil by the plastics industry is expected to increase in line with plastics production (growing by 3.5–3.8% annually); this is much faster than the growth in overall demand for oil, which is expected to increase by only 0.5% annually.
Its possible that these figures may change with an increased reliance on shale gas.
The report highlights the degradation of natural ecosystems from plastic waste leakage, with ocean pollution generating a lot of attention. Even if efforts were made to tackle the problem ‘the volume of plastic waste going into the ocean would stabilise rather than decline, implying a continued increase in total ocean plastics volumes’. Put simply, controlling waste without a closed loop circular system won’t work effectively on its own.
There are of course financial costs to environmental degradation:
…the annual damage of plastics to marine ecosystems is at least USD 13 billion per year and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that the cost of ocean plastics to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was USD 1.3 billion in that region alone. Even in Europe, where leakage is relatively limited, potential costs for coastal and beach cleaning could reach EUR 630 million (USD 695 million) per year.
Leaked plastics can also degrade other natural systems, such as forests and waterways, and induce direct economic costs by clogging sewers and other urban infrastructure. The economic costs of these impacts need further assessment.
Greenhouse gas emissions are another problem. Although the picture is complex, plastic manufacture could contribute to 15% of the global carbon budget. And with a shift to shale gas feedstock, the overall carbon footprint could increase. Another problem is additives:
The 150 million tonnes of plastics currently in the ocean include roughly 23 million tonnes of additives, of which some raise concern. While the speed at which these additives leach out of the plastic into the environment is still subject to debate, estimates suggest that about 225,000 tonnes of such additives could be released into the ocean annually. This number could increase to 1.2 million tonnes per year by 2050.
Clearly a lot of work needs to be done to improve the system. The report makes it clear that current efforts are inadequate:
Today’s plastics economy is highly fragmented. The lack of standards and coordination across the value chain has allowed the proliferation of materials, formats, labelling, collection schemes, and sorting and reprocessing systems, which collectively hamper the development of effective markets. Innovation is also fragmented. The development and introduction of new packaging materials and formats across global supply and distribution chains is happening far faster than and is largely disconnected from the development and deployment of corresponding after-use systems and infrastructure.
The main thrust of the report is the creation of a New Plastics Economy. This will be realised through the principles of a circular economy. The report outlines 3 main principles:
1. Preserve and enhance natural capital by controlling finite stocks and balancing renewable resource flows ReSOLVE* levers: regenerate, virtualise, exchange
2. Optimise resource yields by circulating products, components and materials in use at the highest utility at all times in both technical and biological cycles ReSOLVE levers: regenerate, share, optimise, loop
3. Foster system effectiveness by revealing and designing out negative externalities All ReSOLVE levers.
- ReSOLVE framework (Source: Make Wealth History)
The report recommends global coordination in realising the aims of a New Plastics Economy. It proposes the ‘development of a Global Plastics Protocol to set direction on the redesign and convergence of materials, formats, and after-use systems to substantially improve collection, sorting and reprocessing yields, quality and economics, while allowing for regional differences and continued innovation.’
As well as reuse and recycling, compostable and biodegradable materials are seen as another solution. However there are issues that the report notes:
Efforts to avoid leakage into the ocean would require complementary innovation efforts to make plastic packaging ‘bio-benign’ when it does (unintentionally) leak into the environment. Today’s biodegradable plastics do not measure up against such an ambition, as they are typically compostable only under controlled conditions, as in industrial composters.
The cost of fossil fuel based feedstock is also noted in the report. Prices tend to fluctuate. A circular economy would be less vulnerable to price volatility. But as noted above, the shift to cheap highly subsidised shale gas could push the industry away from sustainable pathways.
Elaborating on the global plastics protocol, the report outlines that this could be an important vehicle for harmonising the fragmentation and lack of standardisation that exists within the system:
A global plastics protocol would be needed to provide a core set of standards as the basis on which to innovate. It could provide guidance on design, labelling, marking, infrastructure and secondary markets, allowing for regional differences and innovation, in order to overcome the existing fragmentation and to fundamentally shift after-use collection and reprocessing economics and market effectiveness.
It would set in motion the factors needed to establish the conditions for a closed loop economy and would monitor the development of systems to fulfil such aims. It would stimulate innovations to tackle many of the problems that plague the current system.
The report identifies 3 main methods of recycling (in order of preference):
1. Mechanical recycling in closed loops. This is the most value-preserving loop. Mechanical recycling keeps polymers intact and hence preserves more value than chemical recycling, where polymers are broken down. Closed-loop mechanical recycling keeps the quality of the materials at a similar level by cycling materials into the same application (e.g. from PET bottle to PET bottle) or into applications requiring materials of similar quality. As such, mechanical closed-loop recycling not only preserves the value of the material, it also maintains the range of possible applications in future, additional loops.
2. Mechanical recycling in open loops (‘cascading’). Given the inherent quality loss during mechanical recycling, closed-loop mechanical recycling cannot continue indefinitely. Open-loop recycling plays an important role as well. In open-loop mechanical recycling, polymers are also kept intact, but the degraded quality and/or material properties require applications with lower demands. Cascading to the highest-value applications each cycle could help maximise value preservation and the number of possible loops.
3. Chemical recycling. Chemical recycling breaks down polymers into individual monomers or other hydrocarbon products that can then serve as building blocks or feedstock to produce polymers again. As such, it is less value preserving than mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling technologies are not yet widespread and/or not yet economically viable for most common packaging plastics. However, as they could enable after-use plastics to be upcycled into virgin-quality polymers again, they could become an option for materials for which mechanical recycling is not possible (e.g. most multi-material packaging or plastics that cannot be cascaded any further).
One of the problems facing recycling is separating multicomponent products (e.g. multi-layered coffee cups). Its difficult to do. As such it affects recycling rates. It may be possible in the future to apply some form of chemical process to such products. But a change in product design would be more effective.
What is required is a degree of coordination across the board to address the fragmented nature of recycling and product design. A plastics protocol could provide the basis for action. Two key elements are identified:
develop and facilitate adoption of global plastic packaging guidelines
develop and facilitate adoption of collection and sorting guidelines.
Separation, cleaning and sorting waste is something that needs to be harmonised to make the process more effective and efficient if a real closed loop zero waste economy is to be realised.
Technological innovations can also help to improve the current system. The role of policy makers in developing a ‘New Plastics Economy’ will be vital in this process.
An important component in creating a circular economy is re-usability. Containers and packaging should be designed to be reused first before being recycled. Encouraging consumers to use reusable containers and retailers to supply bulk stock in one method of closing the loop.
Deposit return schemes are an obvious example of closing the loop by reusing containers. This would be most effective when conducted at a local level, reducing the need for transportation over long distances thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Compostable and biodegradable packaging is another alternative. However the definitions of how each type of packaging works needs to be clarified. Biodegradable packaging can be broken down by microorganisms.
There are two types of compostable packaging, industrial and home compostable. The report lists the following general criteria for industrial composting (depending on location):
Chemical characteristics: it contains at least 50% organic matter (based on dry weight) and does not exceed a given concentration for some heavy metals.
Biodegradation: it biodegrades by at least 90% (by weight) within six months under controlled composting conditions (temperature of 58 +/-2°C).
Disintegration: it fragments into pieces smaller than 2 mm under controlled composting conditions within 12 weeks.
Ecotoxicity: the compost obtained at the end of the process does not cause any negative effects (which could be measured, for example, by the effect on germination and growth of plants).
Home compostable packaging can be industrially compostable. However:
in contrast to industrially compostable materials, home compostable materials can be treated at ambient temperatures and the timeframes for biodegradation and disintegration can be longer.
Its important that these criteria are clearly differentiated. One of the inherent problems though with biodegradable plastics is that they may not be sufficiently biodegradable to provide a solution to the initial problem of pollution due mainly to the time frame involved in the breakdown process. This is an area of current research.
As noted already, plastics contain a variety of additives that can have serious health implications. These are listed as ‘substances of concern (SoC) as they may have serious and often irreversible effects on human health or the environment.’ The relevant regulations overseeing SoC’s are listed:
Similar SoC concepts have been defined by regulations such as the European Commission’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemical Substances (REACH), or the US Environmental Protection Agency-administered Toxic Substances Control Act. The European Chemicals Agency, for example, uses REACH’s definition of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs), i.e. substances with the following properties:
Substances meeting the criteria for classification as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction
category 1A or 1B in accordance with Commission Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008 (CMR substances).
Substances which are persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic (PBT) or very persistent and very bioaccumulative (vPvB) according to REACH (Annex XIII).
Substances identified on a case-by-case basis, for which there is scientific evidence of probable serious effects that cause an equivalent level of concern as with CMR or PBT/vPvB substances.
An underlying issue here is cross contamination from SoC’s in waste streams involved in recycling and even in reusable packaging. Concern over Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) is one example cited:
Researchers, investigating the presence of a recycled polymer waste stream from waste electric and electronic equipment, have found these substances of concern in black plastics used in kitchen utensils. According to a publication of the Cancer Prevention and Education Society, ‘These BFRs have presumably been introduced via the plastic recycling process, as there would be no need for them in virgin monomers intended for this purpose, and they would be forbidden for use in articles intended for use in food preparation.’
There is also a risk of contamination of compostable products. This could lead to agricultural contamination:
The cultivation of food crops in contaminated soil could potentially allow SoCs to enter the food chain and pose a potential risk to human health. ‘Among the possible negative effects of compost utilisation, the potential release of toxic heavy metals into the environment and the transfer of these elements from the soil into the food chain generally are claimed as the most relevant.’
Reducing or eliminating additives needs to be considered. Using less packaging altogether is another obvious solution. The report calls this
‘dematerialisation’. There are various ways to do this that are described.
Lightweight packaging uses less bulk in say a container of bottled water. Less packaging in multi-packaged items. And replacing packaging with other alternatives. For Example, Dell computing has replaced polystyrene with a mushroom based material:
Ecovative’s mushroom-based solution provides an alternative to polystyrene. Its Mushroom® packaging is literally grown to size using a crop waste feedstock. The process uses low levels of energy, produces no residue or waste (it is ‘additive’ in that sense), and the end product is shock-absorbing, fire resistant, and 100% home compostable.
Its deployment in some of DELL’s bulky protective packaging is one of the success stories in the computer technology giant’s quest for substitute packaging materials.
Another example is ‘virtualisation’. This is eliminating packaging altogether. For example, accessing digital music online instead of buying a hard CD copy.
All in this is a robust and well researched report. Many of the recommendations outlined within it should be considered by the industry. However it should be noted here that this is an industry friendly report. Whether or not a ‘New Plastics Economy’ can be realised will depend on market forces.
One important area not covered by the report is over consumption, which is essentially the underlying problem. It covers the Reuse and Recycle elements of the so-called ‘3R’s’, but leaves out the ‘Reduce’ element, even if the report does touch on ‘dematerialisation’. The first step in any closed loop zero waste economy is to reduce consumption. The emphasis should then be on reusing resources. What’s left can be recycled.
With a glut of cheap feedstock being produced by highly subsidised shale gas it would appear that in the US at least, thing’s are moving in reverse with the prospect of cheap disposable plastic flooding the market, with much of this supplying the food industry.