PET (PolyEthylene Terephthalate) - is one of the most widely-used plastics. It also has one of the best-established industries geared specifically to its recycling, making it well-placed to be part of Europe’s ambitions to create a circular economy.
However, maximising the industry’s potential will require polices that provide cooperation and support at all levels. This was the message for attendees at a packed breakfast meeting in the European Parliament on 19 February.
Opening the meeting, Greek EPP MEP Maria Spyraki, stressed the importance of action, saying that currently, “less than 30 percent of plastic waste in the EU is recycled; littering and leakage is taking a toll on land and sea life.”
In the Mediterranean, there are already around 40 pieces of marine litter per square kilometre. However, although there were efforts being undertaken to reduce this, too often the costs were being met by the public, rather than the private sector.
This, she said, should not be the case. “There are business opportunities in recycling plastics, and recycling them can be part of the circular economy.” The key, she felt, was to increase awareness of the importance of recycling from an early age.
British Socialist deputy Theresa Griffin agreed with her colleague, praising the cross-party political approach in dealing with the issue. She said that society needs to act and all member states need to work together to raise awareness on the importance of recycling and be willing to invest accordingly.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle - needs to be our motto; doing this effectively means investing in, and deploying, the latest technology for sorting and collection,” she explained.
Grzegorz Radziejewski, a member of Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Commissioner Jyrki Katainen’s Cabinet, described the plastics strategy/plastic economy as one of the most uniting strategies that the Commission could propose.
“Less than 30 percent of plastic waste in the EU is recycled; littering and leakage is taking a toll on land and sea life” Maria Spyraki MEP
It was, he said “a microcosm of the circular economy.” The point of the legislation was “not to kill plastic usage, but to ensure it is used differently than it is at the moment.” He pointed out that 95 percent of value inherent in plastics is lost after the first use; therefore it is essential to have representatives from the entire value chain around the table.
By 2030, a “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach should be automatic for all plastic packaging. However, this will not happen without a functional market for recycling; a key part of this is to ensure supply matches demand.
Currently, the EU has capacity to recycle 10 million tonnes of plastic waste, but at the moment, only six million tonnes are available.
Christian Crépet, Executive Director of Petcore Europe, which represents the PET value chain in Europe, from manufacture to conversion into packaging and recycling, explained that PET is the most widely-recycled material in Europe - 1.9 million tonnes in 2017 - around 58 percent of all plastic containers.
Petcore has made a commitment to the Commission to reach a PET recycling rate of 70 percent by 2030.
"PET is the most widely-recycled material in Europe - 1.9 million tonnes in 2017 - around 58 percent of all plastic containers" Christian Crépet, Executive Director of Petcore Europe
Crépet said that the industry was capable of ensuring that “what can be collected, will be recycled,” but that “growth in PET collection has stagnated in recent years.” It was important to prioritise this, he said. He highlighted that a deposit system - as with glass - could improve collection rates.
Another improvement was to collect PET trays and cups, as well as just bottles. This was a legacy of manual waste sorting - a challenge that newer, more-sophisticated automated systems had overcome.
Gian De Belder, principal scientist sustainable packaging development at Procter & Gamble, provided an overview of some other practical problems facing plastic recycling. It needed a closed loop, ranging from access to collection, through participation and education, separation and product innovation.
While the latter was within the capacity of the industry - he gave the example of deploying detachable plastic sleeves on bottles, avoiding the use of coloured plastics - the other links on the loops were weaker. This, he said, is where policy is vital.
Patricia Fosselard, Secretary General of EFBW, the European Federation of Bottled Waters, acknowledged that her sector was one of the biggest users of plastic. However, she was keen to explain that her industry is doing its part.
"The key should be to get plastic recycling rates to the same level as those of paper, glass and metals" Sarah Nelen, Head of Unit, Waste Management and Secondary Materials at the European Commission’s DG Environment
Notably, it had reduced the amount of plastic used in bottles - now less than that for a packet of chewing gum. What was most important was to focus on preventing waste; “Collection, collection, collection”, she stressed.
Sarah Nelen, Head of Unit, Waste Management and Secondary Materials at the European Commission’s DG Environment, supported the focus on “Collection, collection, collection.”
She pointed out that half of member states were at risk of not achieving their targets for 2020, making the 2030 objectives seem a long way off . The key should be to get plastic recycling rates to the same level as those of paper, glass and metals, she said.
In closing, Spyraki said, “We have the tools we require, but we also need to focus on other aspects - including focusing on plastics collection.”
She added, “We have funding, we have the technology and business opportunities exist for the materials. However, we need to communicate much more effectively on the importance of collection from an early age.”