On January 28, 2021, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report on the impact of plastics on the environment and climate, the issue of plastic waste trade, and three approaches that together may lead towards a European circular plastics economy.
The report lays out the challenges of shifting a linear towards a circular plastics economy. The authors mention, for example, the problem of additives, which are important for processing but also make the materials more hazardous, the wide application of plastics for short-lived products, leakage to the environment as well as the very low recycling rates and ubiquitous downcycling.
Furthermore, the report addresses the issue of plastic waste trade, with the EU-28 states still being a major exporter. The Chinese plastic import ban in 2017 and the Basel Convention (FPF reported) have contributed to reducing plastic waste exports from the EU to China, but also led to a re-routing towards other countries in Southeast Asia including Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. For the future, the report suggests improving the capacities for reusing and recycling plastic waste within the EU.
Faced with a multitude of challenges, a single initiative will not be enough to pave the way towards a circular plastics economy. Instead, the authors suggest three major pathways in line with current policies: (1) “smarter use”, (2) “increased circularity”, as well as (3) “renewable raw materials”.
In the pathway “smarter use,” the focus is on improving plastic production and use it to solve problems that are connected to leakage and toxicity, paying less attention to climate change impacts.
Initiatives that are part of the “increased circularity” route aim to integrate the entire value chain for improving the circularity of plastics. Nevertheless, these initiatives often do not address the expanding levels of consumption or the dependence of plastics on fossil carbon resources.
Finally, the “renewable material” pathway aims to reduce fossil carbon as a raw material in the production of plastics but does not concentrate on plastic use and waste management.
The authors conclude that none of the approaches will be successful on their own in establishing a circular plastic economy, however, together they can help in “ensuring a continued long-term movement towards a more circular plastics system.”
They also write: “As is often the case with sustainability shifts and transitions, there are no silver bullets for solving the challenges of plastics. We need to consider multiple pathways to address all the challenges of plastics in the longer term. This includes not only improving synergies between them but also acknowledging potential trade-offs.”
EEA (January 28, 2021). “Plastics, the circular economy and Europe′s environment —A priority for action.”