Plastics pollution: Problems and solutions in the circular economy
Applying circular economy principles properly can dramatically reshape the economics of plastics in the global economy and help the environment, writes Miriam Dalli.
Miriam Dalli | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual
Plastic pollution is a real threat both on land and sea. What is a widely used material in our everyday life is turning into a giant headache in the way it is being disposed of and waste managed. The threat is there, and the leakage of plastic material including micro-plastic into our environment, particularly our oceans, should convince us all to come up with effective solutions, sooner rather than later.
The fact is that cheap, durable and versatile plastic brings multiple benefits to our lives. Nonetheless, these very qualities pose problems when plastics end up in the environment, with direct impacts on our countryside, our seas, the climate and human health.
It is estimated that two to five per cent of plastics produced end up in our oceans. Some of these are microplastics, resulting either from the degradation of larger plastic pieces or from the release of micro pieces of plastics, for instance from the washing of synthetic textiles or the abrasion of pneumatic tyres while driving. This is a global issue with direct implications at national, regional and local level.
Coming from an island surrounded by the Mediterranean, I look at the issue of plastic pollution as a global problem that requires a global solution - but not only. We cannot just sweep the problem under the carpet under the pretext that global solutions are required.
As national and EU policymakers, we need to take urgent action and make sure that we address this pertinent challenge at all levels.
We cannot address the problem of plastic pollution in a vacuum either. Sweeping statements like ‘we need to ban plastics’ might look good on paper but will be very difficult to e¬ffectively work out in real life. We need to be realistic and come up with solutions that can really work.
More so, since we need to consider that from the 1950s plastics have revolutionised the way we live and have become an essential part of our daily lives.
In its different forms, plastic is an extensively used material in a number of industries, and its use is becoming widespread in food and beverage packaging, in construction, in the telecommunications industry, in electronics, in the automotive sector, in agriculture and other sectors.
So much so that the consultancy giant McKinsey described plastics as “the workhorse material of the modern economy, as its popularity has kept the industry growing for 50 years, with global production surging from 15 million metric tonnes in 1964 to 311 million metric tonnes in 2014”. McKinsey further states that if business proceeds as usual, this number is projected to double to more than 600 million metric tonnes globally in the next 20 years.
Looking at European figures, the situation does not look much better. Europe consumes more than 56 million tonnes of plastics every year and produces 24 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. When it comes to plastic packaging, 95 per cent is lost to the economy, mainly dumped in landfills or just thrown away polluting our seas and our environment.
Worse still, most of our plastic waste in Europe is not recycled, as 39 per cent ends in landfills, 35 per cent is incinerated and only 26 per cent is collected for recycling. And here in my view, lies the crux of the problem.
If we are serious about this problem, and a problem it is, then we need to look into di¬fferent alternatives of plastic recycling. See which systems work best, what best practices can we look into and adapt to different realities across our member states.
This needs to start happening now, because plastic pollution is ending up in our streams, our oceans and open spaces, resulting in the deaths of millions of animals annually and in unprecedented environmental pollution all around the globe.
I am not one who simply sees problems, but rather challenges that we can identify, address and use as opportunities. I believe that this is an opportunity. There is great potential for reuse, recycling and for innovation.
Applying the circular economy principles properly can dramatically reshape the economics of plastics in the global economy while helping the environment.
Recycling plastics has a great potential because here is a material that can be recycled many times while retaining its value and functional properties.
It means that we need to increase the collection of plastic waste and Europe’s recycling capacity.
It means that we need to limit plastic export and retain plastic waste originating from the EU because this is a processed material that has value. Innovation is key and it needs to stimulate more methods of increasing recycling and the recyclability of plastic-containing products that further improve product design.
There is great potential for economic gain but for this to happen we need multiple players across businesses and research communities to come together, to reconceive key material flows and manufacturing processes. All this needs to be supported by the proper policies and by sufficient investment.
The upcoming EU strategy for plastics needs to deliver on this. It has to set the scene for improving the economics, the quality and low rate of plastic recycling and reuse. It has to address the significant leakage of plastics into the environment, in particular our seas, and the high dependence on fossil-fuel as feedstock.
The new EU plastics strategy needs to guide us on how to e¬ffectively and efficiently tackle the issue of plastic pollution on our land and sea and boost immediate action at European, national and local level in Europe and beyond.
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