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Plastics In A Circular Economy

16 minutes for read

Plastic is ubiquitous. Production of plastics has grown exponentially by 19,000 per cent since 1950, and over half of today’s plastic products are designed to be single-use.

Of the colossal volumes of plastic waste produced globally, only 9 per cent is recycled, 12 per cent is incinerated, and the rest is disposed of in landfills or becomes litter.

Current plastic waste treatment methods pollute seas, air, and food, with adverse environmental and health impacts on people and wildlife. The situation with plastic waste is expected to worsen as plastic production is predicted to double by 2050

The European Union (EU) is introducing several measures to reduce plastic waste by encouraging recycling and circular production. Read this article to find out about:

  • What the EU’s Plastics Strategy is,
  • What regulations were introduced to reduce plastic consumption,
  • How circular production can minimise plastic waste, and
  • What technologies can provide circular solutions.

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The European Union’s Plastics Strategy 

A 2018 report, European Strategy For Plastics In A Circular Economy, notes that in 2015, Europe generated 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste, of which only 30 per cent was collected for recycling. 31 per cent of the plastic waste was landfilled, and the remaining 39 per cent was incinerated, respectively. By 2022, Europe’s plastic waste volumes had increased to 32.3 Mt.

In 2019, plastic production and incineration released 850 million tonnes of carbon emissions, and plastics are responsible for 80 per cent of marine pollution.

The EU has taken several steps to combat the plastic problem, as detailed in the 2018 report:

  • In 2015, the European Commission (EC) recognised the urgency of the plastic waste problem when it adopted the “First Circular Economy Action Plan.” 
  • In 2017, the EC set the goal of making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. 
  • In 2018, the EC adopted the “European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.” This strategy promotes the production of plastics through innovative and sustainable manufacturing that integrates circular design, which respects and enables reuse, repair, and recycling to increase jobs and reduce plastic consumption, carbon emissions, and dependence on imported fossil fuels in the EU.

The EU has since supported this strategy by passing several regulations to reduce plastic consumption and encourage investment and innovation in circular solutions.

Regulations to Reduce Plastic Consumption

One of the main aims of the European Strategy for Plastics is to reduce plastic consumption, prevent production problems, and minimise waste. The EU has implemented several regulations to help reduce plastic consumption and boost demand for recycled plastics, including:

  • Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD): The latest amendment to the PPWD in 2018 stipulates that the Extended Producer Responsibility should be enforced by the end of 2024 for packaging producers and sets recycling targets of 50 per cent and 55 per cent by 2025 and 2030, respectively.
  • European Green Deal: The European Green Deal has introduced mandatory targets of reducing packaging waste by 15 per cent from 2018 numbers by 2040. To achieve this aim, the European Green Deal promotes reusable and refillable packages, transparency in the labelling of recyclable packaging, avoiding unnecessary packaging, making packaging completely recyclable by 2030, and setting mandatory rates of recycled content in plastic packaging.
  • Ban on single-use plastics: On 3rd July 2021, the EU ban on the top 10 single-use plastic items and fishing gear came into force. These banned items account for 70 per cent of marine pollution in the EU and include cotton buds, plates, cutlery, straws, balloons, food containers, beverage cups, cigarette butts, plastic bags, packets, wrappers, wet wipes, and sanitary items. For items without sustainable alternatives like PET bottles, the Directive on single-use plastics has set specific recycling targets. Design, labelling, and waste clean-up obligations such as  Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) were also introduced.
  • Zero Pollution Action Plan: The Zero Pollution Action Plan was adopted on 12th May 2021. It aims to reduce marine plastic litter by 5 per cent, microplastics in the environment by 30 per cent, and municipal waste by 50 per cent.
  • Waste Export: On 17Th November 2023, the EU and EC reached a political agreement that export of plastic waste from the EU to non-OCED nations would be prohibited within 2.5 years of the regulation. Prior to this agreement, in 2021 the EU exported over one million tonnes of plastic waste to non-OCED countries where it was burnt or landfilled. This waste is now available for EU recyclers as feedstock to boost the circular economy.

Transitioning to a Circular Economy for Plastics

The circular economy extends the value of materials after products are no longer used through reuse, recycling, and recovery. Also called remanufacturing, this approach keeps materials in circulation longer and eschews the need to extract and process new raw materials. 

Circularity in plastic production can reduce fossil fuel use and divert post-consumer plastics from landfilling and incineration. According to the  Plastics Europe 2024 Report, circularity is the fastest, most cost-effective means to diminish plastic waste, meet greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets of 28 per cent by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050.

The Plastics Europe 2024 Report says that 26.9 per cent of European plastics were recycled in 2022, more than the waste landfilled. 

According to the Report, the industry is transitioning to circularity. Recycled plastics use has increased by 70 per cent since 2018, and circular plastic accounts for 13.5 per cent of the total plastic produced in Europe. 

The Report also points out the challenges the industry faces to reach the 25 per cent circular plastic goal by 2030:  

  • Progress in circularity is not uniform throughout the plastics value chain. Content rates of recycled plastic are higher in sectors like packaging (9.7 per cent), construction (22.7 per cent), and agriculture (37.5 per cent). However, other industries are lagging behind, such as the automotive industry, which only uses 4.6 per cent recycled plastic, and the electricals and electronics industry, which uses even less, at 3.2 per cent.
  • Plastic waste incineration has increased by 18 per cent since 2018, and around 25 per cent of plastic waste was still landfilled in 2022. Better collection and sorting of plastic waste is necessary to prevent incineration and landfilling of mixed plastics and divert them to meet demands for circular feedstocks.
  • Recycled plastics are still in low demand. Low prices and manufacturers’ concerns about quality are major reasons for poor demand, discouraging investment and innovation in plastic recycling.
  • Most plastic recycling is currently done at small and regional facilities. Standardisation and upscaling of recycling and recovery efforts are necessary, especially to tackle the plastic waste that the EU used to export. 

Plastic manufacturers want more intervention from the EU and national governments to overcome these challenges and accelerate the transition to circularity. 

The EC is working to remove these hurdles through regulations and partnerships with the plastics industry and the European Committee for Standardisation to develop standards for sorted waste and recycled plastics.

Innovations and Technologies Driving Circular Solutions

However, the transition to circularity in the plastics industry will be impossible without innovation and the development of new technology to meet the demands of design changes and allow for efficient recycling and material recovery from post-consumer plastic waste. 

Several technologies can increase circularity in the plastics industry by providing feedstock or supporting the use of recycled materials, such as:

  • Mechanical recycling: This standard method remains popular and accounts for 13.2 per cent of secondary plastic material, according to the Plastics Europe 2024 report. It involves shredding and melting plastic into flakes or pellets that are useful as feedstock.
  • Chemical recycling: According to the Plastics Europe 2024 report, chemical recycling, also known as chemcycling, can help complete transition to circular plastics but currently provides only 0.1 per cent of the feedstock for plastics. It involves chemically breaking down waste into its molecular components, which can be used to make virgin-quality plastics.
  • Pyrolysis: Pyrolysis is a thermo-chemical process that breaks down plastic polymers; for example, in waste tires, to produce recovered oil, gases, and carbon black. These secondary products can be used as feedstock for plastics and other products. 
  • Bioplastics: Bioplastics are produced from renewable and biomass feedstocks. Some are also biodegradable and are sustainable alternatives to fossil-fuel-derived products. According to the Plastics Europe 2024 report, bioplastics account for 1 per cent of European plastic production.
  • Repurposing: Plastic waste is upcycled and repurposed to produce high-value products without treatment.
  • Additive manufacturing: Additive manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing, boost demand for recycled plastic as raw materials.
  • Traceability solutions: Blockchain and other traceability technologies can increase transparency and accountability in plastic recycling and reuse.

As the standardisation of plastic waste and recycled materials improves, the market for recycled feedstock should also grow. 

Moreover, assured demand can also be increased through collaboration between manufacturers, suppliers, and recyclers in the plastics value chain, which will encourage innovations. To help with collaboration, the EC wants to integrate recyclers into the plastics value chain, tap into their expertise and experience to create higher-quality recycled plastics, and provide manufacturers with a steady feedstock supply. Most circular transitions have only been possible through collaboration between stakeholders throughout a supply chain.

Contec uses a proprietary pyrolysis process to turn end-of-life tires into new commodities. Learn more about our process.

Better Product Design Makes Plastic Recycling Easier 

Another critical step in increasing circularity is product design. 

According to Sustainable Design, manufacturers incorporating circularity at the design stage can influence the entire value chain. Circular design involves material choice, planning for recycling post-consumer goods, and determining how materials can be brought back into the economy. 

Material choice is a critical design decision, and manufacturers can increase circularity by choosing recycled plastic or feedstock. Designing products for easy separation of component parts will also increase reuse, refurbishing, repurposing, and recycling. By increasing the demand for recycled plastics, it is possible to encourage better collection, sorting, and recycling of post-consumer plastics.

“Product design is also key in increasing circularity, as rethinking the design of many everyday items (like tires) can help minimise waste. Product design can irreversibly affect the ease of separating components for later reuse and recycling, which causes circularity to involve considerable technology and energy. Component separation is a recycling challenge that reduces tire material recycling, repurposing, and economic circulation. The difficulty of tire disassembly means nearly 50 per cent of ELTs are incinerated.”

Krzysztof Wróblewski, CEO at Contec

Contec treats end-of-life tires (ELTs) through pyrolysis, and knows firsthand that easy separation of component parts can make recycling more efficient. Tires are made of several components, a high proportion of which is synthetic rubber produced from plastic polymers. Contec separates the rubber from other components and produces rubber granules, which it then uses in its pyrolysis plant to create secondary oil, gas, and carbon black. 

Design improvements are crucial to reaching the recycling goals set by PPWD in 2018 for plastic packaging of 50 per cent and 55 per cent by 2025 and 2030, respectively.

Driven by EU regulations and consumer demand for change, Europe has started transitioning to more circular plastic production methods. While significant progress has been made in improving the recycling rate of plastics, more needs to be done. Individuals can do their part by avoiding single-use plastics. Incentives and investments to encourage upscaling of plastics recycling are also urgently needed. With the introduction of better waste management by EU countries and broader adoption of circular principles, the plastics industry can hopefully reach its 2030 recycling targets. 

At Contec, we enable tire manufacturers interested in transitioning to a circular economy by providing recovered Carbon Black (ConBlack®), recovered Tire Pyrolysis Oil (ConPyro®), and recovered Steel (ConWire®) from ELTs as sustainable alternatives to current industrial production.

Get in touch to learn more about our solutions.

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