Technological watch

How does the plastic industry advance circularity' a deep dive into Systemiq’s report on reducing waste

The question of whether (or what) the industry can do to reduce plastic and packaging waste is an ever-changing debate with ever-changing science and evidence pointing the industry in different directions. The latest of these of these industry studies was Systemiq’s report, which brings together over 80 published reports and research papers into the topic. × The report highlights some of the main features of the value chain: the PET/polyester system in Europe is mostly not circular today, chemical recycling technologies are emerging for PET/polyester at industrial scale. They offer the potential to increase circularity and the complementary application of mechanical, chemical recycling and reuse in the PET/polyester system has potential to optimise environmental and socioeconomic benefits. However, this is just scratching the surface of the report, with the outlook for the industry being wholly more complex suggesting there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution to how it deals with plastic and packaging waste. 

According to the report, there are flaws at nearly every point in the value chain from recycling to design, however each step, regardless of its flaws plays an important role in reducing waste. This has been echoed by Ben Dixon, Partner and Head of Materials and Circular Economy, Systemiq, when explaining the role of mechanical recycling in the process, he told Interplas Insights: “Mechanical recycling can be a great solution for some PET applications – for example PET plastic bottles have high recycling rates above 90% in some countries in Europe. Our study shows that around one-third of this recycled material goes back into bottles and two-thirds goes into textiles or trays that have low recycling rates. This is not necessarily a bad thing – because it is still replacing fossil-fuel derived plastics and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it may have economic implications.”

In addition to the role mechanical recycling plays in the role of circularity, the report points to the fact that new technology will an play an incredibly important role in reducing plastic and packaging waste. Dixon echoed these sentiments: “Technology developments could have a transformational impact over the next few years, at every stage of the plastics value chain. New “climate positive” plastics are being developed based on carbon dioxide feedstocks. Artificial intelligence and block-chain technologies can enable traceability and high-quality sortation of plastics.”

Dixon points to chemical recycling as one of these new technologies that has picked up significant momentum within the industry, but emphasises that it is technology that should work alongside other methods along the value chain and must grow significantly to help meet targets: “Chemical recycling of PET/polyester through depolymerisation has some significant tailwinds at the moment – most notably the high demand for high quality recycled PET/polyester from food, beverage, fashion and consumer goods industries, and the policy shifts such as extended producer responsibility, that could unlock chemical recycling in the fashion and textiles sector.  Our report has shown that there is significant potential to increase the circularity of PET/polyester through complementary approaches that combine reuse, mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. All of these solutions need to grow significantly in Europe over the next years to achieve the environmental goals set by policy-makers and industry.”

The report also points to the fact that the reduction or replacement of plastic packaging in Europe is ‘not yet to scale’ Dixon said: “Studies have shown that switching from single-use packaging to reuse and refill models has significant potential to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, if done in the right way. The draft Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation shows that there is likely to be strong policy support for this transition in the next years. Scaling up this solution requires innovative system-building efforts and collaboration by consumer brands, retailers and service providers – which is starting to happen in Europe.”

When speaking of legislation there has been significant strides by legislative bodies to tackle plastic and packaging waste. The  UK’s  plastic packaging tax was introduced on the 1st April 2022, with the EU equivalent being introduced in the previous year. When asked if the legislation had gone far enough, Dixon said: “Governments and leading businesses in Europe are doing a lot to encourage more circular practices. Many businesses have joined the Global Commitment to a New Plastics Economy or Plastic Pacts which include voluntary commitments to 100% recyclable packaging, reduction of unnecessary packaging and use of recycled content. The EU’s draft Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation and the EU Textiles Strategy lay out ambitious policies for increasing circularity in Europe. 

“One key missing element we often highlight is the policy enablers and business investments in the waste collection and sorting chain that will create a more stable and predictable supply of plastic waste feedstocks for scale-up of the recycling industry.”

The report highlights two final areas along the value chain which could potentially be vital in the reduction of plastic and packaging waste, both design and reduction/reuse of materials in products. Dixon was particularly keen to reference the Ellen MacArthur foundation’s  assessment that design choices are important for reusability: “The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has described the circular economy as a “design challenge” and this definitely applies in the case of plastics circularity. Design choices for PET packaging and polyester textiles makes a big difference in the reusability or recyclability after use. For example, pigments in bottles or multi-material blends can make a big difference in the value of the material for recyclers.”

However, Dixon does note that there should be caution with the reuse and reduction of single use packaging and plastics in particular: “In some cases, reduction and reuse could lead to unintended consequences if not applied well (e.g. increased food waste if packaging is removed or increased material usage if durable containers are not actually reused by consumers).” Such unintended economic and social consequences need to be carefully balanced with the need for a more circular approach.

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Publication date: 06/02/2023

European Plastic Product Manufacturer

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31