Increasing awareness of environmental challenges, such as carbon emissions and plastic pollution, is driving societal and regulatory change in Europe and around the world. Business and industry are taking note and are increasingly adapting products, supply chains and production to reduce waste and increase recyclability, in accordance with the concept of the circular economy.
The circular economy refers to "closing the loop(1)” of product life cycles through greater recycling and re-use, benefiting both the environment and the economy. Recycling plastics is an immensely important part of this loop, as they are used in so many products and processes today. Reducing plastic waste and recycling more plastic is becoming an increasingly important focus of government and regulators.
Industry is looking to stay ahead of the regulatory curve and most big brands are aiming to use more recycled plastic. However, the availability of traditional, easily recyclable plastic scrap is limited. Well-sorted scrap not mixed with other products is already being widely recycled, but it makes up only 30% of total plastic waste in Europe, and probably much less globally(2).
Until recently, much of the remainder of the plastic heap was sent to China for recycling. China imported 7.3 million tons of plastic scrap in 2016(3), comprising more than 50% of the total volume of such exports. However, due to growing pollution concerns, China is banning imports of waste from the rest of the world(4). This is a major jolt to the market, as countries that formerly exported the problem now have to scramble to develop new recycling infrastructure and find new ways to manage their scrap.
In the meantime, the European Union recently released its strategy for plastics in a circular economy(5). This initiative is likely to be the precursor to an accelerated legislative agenda for new rules and targets for producing and using plastics. One of the EU’s objective is to ensure that all plastic packaging placed on the EU market is reusable or easily recycled by 2030, which is very ambitious, indeed.
Thus, a combination of market and regulatory factors is pushing industries to come up with ambitious voluntary targets, before these are imposed on them.
To boost the use of recycled plastics, the European Commission is launching a pledging campaign for European industries this year. For the four priority sectors involved in the strategy (packaging, automotive, building and construction, electric and electronic devices), the challenge, then, is to find innovative ways of recycling this plastic waste. Major brands are demonstrating their goodwill to tackle the problem and get out in front of the regulatory push, in the hope of making stricter regulation to accelerate the movement unnecessary.
According to Richard Bourdon, Solvay Move4Earth® project director, this is a clear sign that Solvay’s vision for the circular economy is spot-on. “We expect an acceleration in demand in the coming months and years for recycled plastic content,” says Bourdon.
“This is now becoming a reality,” he adds, pointing to his group’s innovative recycling initiative for automotive airbags, transforming the polyamide extracted from scrap into high quality PA66 engineering plastics for sustainably-designed commercial applications.
Innovative chemistry, like that being harnessed by Solvay’s Move4Earth, has an important role to play in coming up with workable recycling for plastics, and making the circular economy a reality.
Move4Earth® is supported by European Commission Life+ programme