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Mind the gap: lost opportunities

Kim Christiansen discusses with MRW the key trends and opportunities in plastics waste management across Europe

Plastics Europe recently published an in-depth report on waste management of plastics across 29 European countries. What were the key findings from this?

Across Europe, although the generation of post-consumer plastic waste generation has not really increased over the last eight years, the rates of recycling and energy recovery have increased every year. In 2012, almost 62% of all plastic waste was recovered and prevented from being landfilled. Indeed, 26% was recycled and 36% was recovered through energy from waste technologies. This also means that 38% of all plastic post-consumer waste is still landfilled.

But the study reveals that there are great differences in performance between countries. There is a leading group of nine countries who recover almost 100% of the plastic waste they generate, while other European countries still landfill more than 60% of their waste.

Were there any surprises?

The study really highlights the difference among countries and the need for developing infrastructure to manage a greater volume of plastic waste in most markets.

Globally, we see a clear trend towards more plastic recovery and more efficient use and management of these end-of-life resources. Despite these improvements, more than nine million tonnes of European plastic waste was landfilled in 2012. This means that there is still a lot to do in terms of implementing waste management options to deliver greater resource efficiency. There is also room for improvement in communicating the full potential in capturing the embedded resources in plastics at the end of their use.

The real finding, apart from being an excellent tool to better understand the plastics waste market and business opportunities in each country, is that landfill is a hurdle to resource efficiency and to sustainable waste management.  In many countries the waste sector can offer many business opportunities to increase the level of plastics recovery.

What action can be taken as a result of the findings?

Some years ago, PlasticsEurope launched its challenging but realistic goal of zero plastics to landfill by 2020, aimed at fostering and promoting resource efficiency in Europe and at sharing market and technological knowledge in the area of plastics waste management. This will only be achieved if all stakeholders understand that plastics are too valuable to throw away and that in the framework of a more resource efficient Europe, the value chain needs to work together to ensure the embedded resources within end of life plastics are fully recovered.

Despite rising recovery rates around Europe, the pace is still too slow: with a ‘business as usual’ approach it will take until 2037 to reach zero plastics to landfill in many member states. It also means a lost opportunity in recovering these valuable resources, estimated to be €1bn between 2020 and 2037.

We encourage administrators to look at fiscal and legislative measures to drive these materials from landfill. When looking at the results of our report, one thing jumps out at you: it is only in countries with landfill bans that levels of waste recovery are extremely high, greater than 95%.

Any action that can be taken to catalyse the development of appropriate waste management infrastructure in order to recover all those resources is welcome.

The report looks at various plastics waste streams. What are the main differences in recycling or recovery performance between these streams and what are the reasons for this?

Clearly, the results are quite different from one type of application to another. For example the rate of recovery for plastics waste coming from packaging (food and non-food applications) is 69%, more than seven percentage points higher than the overall average for plastics waste recovery.

The disparity of results among the different application and waste stream is complex and due to several factors: to start with, one has to consider the lifespan of products – a window frame or a car bumper is likely to have to range between 10-50 years.

Another element is the regulatory aspect; legislation drives the recovery of the embedded material, for example in the WEEE, automotive (ELV) and packaging sectors. The third element relates to the complexity of the material being processed in the waste management stream which explains the different levels of recovery today, as it is far more complicated to recover a combination of polymers than a mono-polymer stream. In many sectors, such as automotive or electric and electronic devices, materials made of a combination of polymers are needed in order to provide the required performance properties of the products.

Progress is being made at all fronts including the management of complex waste streams. For example, with voluntary initiatives like the VinylPlus scheme called Recovinyl, rigid PVC waste from the building and construction sector is diverted from landfill for recycling.

Similarly, there are several initiatives to improve the recovery of agricultural films in a number of European countries which allow forecasts for much higher levels of recovery in this sector in the coming years.

We expect further opportunities for the recovery of plastic resources as new innovations enter the market.

Some European countries will be closer to zero plastics to landfill than others.  What puts them in a stronger or lesser position?

In Europe, a group of nine countries send practically no plastic waste to landfill. These top performing countries have achieved this through the implementation of current waste legislation and through national government initiatives to stop the landfilling of high calorific waste.

Generally, these countries complement high quality mechanical recycling with very efficient energy from waste processes. In fact, the report shows that countries with the highest level of energy recovery do also have the highest levels of mechanical recycling, this demonstrates that in order to have really high plastic waste recovery rates the combination of both recovery options is important.

Middle and bottom ranking countries for recovery need to act rapidly by taking measures to increase gate fees of landfill by mechanisms such as landfill taxes and ultimately by closing the door to landfilling of waste that can be recovered for recycling and energy recovery. Again, the combination of recycling and energy recovery is crucial for these countries who want to achieve higher levels of resource efficiency, since mechanical recycling is not always the best option from a sustainability point of view. In such a case, energy recovery is a preferred waste management option to landfilling.

Do higher performing countries have a higher quality of recovered material?

Higher performing countries have more advanced waste management infrastructure and are able to collect a higher quality of recovered material, which allows them to more efficiently obtain high quality mechanical recycling and efficient recovery of energy from plastic waste.

It is encouraging that these higher performing countries, who have already achieved close to zero plastics to landfill continue to look to increase their recycling rates. But in order to increase recycling rates you need, on the one hand, to increase the demand for recycled materials in final products and, on the other hand, to have the necessary infrastructure to recover increased levels of high quality recyclate to a standard that meets the performance requirements for new products.

Does it matter where the end destination of recycled or recovered plastics is?

If the recycling is done to a standard that is equivalent to that in Europe, this remains an acceptable temporary situation until all member states have developed their own recycling and recovery infrastructures.

Does the plastics sector need more regulation to drive plastics waste from landfill or tighter regulation of existing legislation? Or does it need more investment, education or innovation?

I would say the answer is we need more of all.

We need tighter enforcement of existing regulation and strengthening of regulations if we are to achieve our goal of zero plastics to landfill by 2020 and accelerate progress towards a resource efficient Europe.

In some cases, a first step could be to establish and further increase landfill gate fees for such material. This would certainly help to develop more sustainable schemes for waste management and would foster innovation and investment in collection, selection and recycling of plastics - in energy recovery technologies and also in eco-design and production processes. There is also a need to support innovation within business and academia in order to further increase recycling, such as with new detection systems. Improved digital image analysis and in the future de-polymerisation of plastic waste will lead to the production of feedstock for new virgin plastics.

Greater investment in education is also needed. Society needs to be aware of the full potential of waste, especially plastic waste, to understand the importance of appropriately disposing of it at the end of life so that it is efficiently recovered. PlasticsEurope works with a variety of stakeholders, to convey the message to citizens that plastic waste is an incredible resource which needs to be efficiently managed in order to get the most of it.

Kim Christiansen is PlasticsEurope’s regional director, north region. PlasticsEurope is a European trade association for the plastics industry.


Post-consumer plastics waste management report

What is it?

An in-depth analysis of plastic waste generation by country, by polymer and by application including how much plastic waste is recovered and landfilled. Since 2006, PlasticsEurope has analysed the above data in all EU countries + Norway & Switzerland with particular focus on post-consumer plastic waste generation and management, in order to have a better understanding of how each country is dealing with its waste in the frame of resource efficiency.

What does the report cover?

29 European countries;

Analysis of plastic post-consumer waste in seven market sectors: Packaging (household and industrial); Building & Construction; Automotive; Electrical & Electronics; Agriculture; Housewares, Leisure, Sports and Others (furniture, etc.);

Analysis of 10 plastic post-consumer waste streams waste by: Residual household waste; Bulky household waste; Separate collection by municipalities for non-packaging; Sales packaging waste collection; WEEE waste collection; Municipal waste generated by commercial activities; Commercial & industrial waste; Commercial packaging wasted collected; ELV including auto-shredder residue; Other recycling systems:

Analysis of waste generation for 15 different polymers, PE-LD; PE-HD; PP; PS; EPS; PVC; PET; ABS, ASA, SAN; PMMA; PA; other thermoplastics; PUR and others.

Precise data on the volume of waste generated in each country, from the source of waste arising, how it is managed; how much is recycled, how much is recovered through energy from waste technologies and how much is still sent to landfill.

A comparative analysis looking at the specifics of each country to evaluate how a better waste management can be achieved across Europe.

Find the report at:


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