Plastic packaging and the circular economy

plastic packaging

The circular economy of plastic packaging is a vital tool for combating climate change in supply chains and can save money.

The EU wants 55 per cent of plastic packaging waste to be recycled by 2030, a big target for which companies involved in making and handling plastics have to follow from design to production and end-of-life. To meet the new targets economic growth and demand for raw materials must be decoupled from each other.

To play a role in a circular economy plastic waste would have to be versatile as a material (not as an incineration material) and cascading use would need to be possible. This means that a raw material can be used several times in succession to manufacture products. At the end of the cascade is the final thermal utilisation.

In 2021, 57.2 million tonnes of plastics were produced in the EU – and the trend is rising. This corresponds to about one sixth of global plastic production. The largest share of the plastic produced is used in the packaging industry (approx. 40 per cent), followed by the construction industry (approx. 20%) and the automotive industry (approx. 10 per cent).

As plastic production increases, so does the amount of waste generated. In 2020, more than 29 million tonnes of plastic waste were produced across Europe. Only one third of this could be recycled. One quarter of the waste was deposited, while the remaining 40 per cent was used in energy recovery. The amount of plastic deposited is steadily decreasing, while the amount recovered (recycling and incineration) is increasing. As part of its Green Deal, the EU is pushing for 55 per cent of plastic packaging waste to be recycled by 2030.

Bio-based plastics have been touted as a solution but they only account for around two per cent while fossil-based thermoplastics such as PP, PE, PVC, PET and PS dominate plastics production with a share of just about 90 per cent.

The waste generated during the production and processing of plastics is collected, reprocessed if necessary and used again in production together with the new plastic. This is pre-consumer recycling. The advantages here are the short distances, as the plastic is often reprocessed internally, and that the production waste is clean and its chemical composition is known to the producer.

In post-consumer recycling the waste from end consumers is reused. In many countries, plastic waste is collected separately. The collected material is sorted, washed and processed into granulate – also known as post-consumer recyclate. Products can then be made again from this recyclate. Compared to production from new PET, this saves up to one tenth of CO2 emissions.

Recycling is still a complex and expensive process that requires energy and emits greenhouse gases. In addition, recycled material is often of lower quality than virgin plastic. The use of recyclate in production may fail to meet quality and hygiene requirements. However, wherever possible, recycled material should be used.

Recycling starts long before production. When developing their packaging, design teams must consider mind how a plastic product can later be successfully recycled. Only if consumers can easily separate the individual components of the packaging, can they be further reused in a circular economy.

The trade in used machinery contributes to the circular economy in machinery and plant engineering sector. Every re-used machine saves greenhouse gases and raw materials compared to new production. Around 55,000 machines and operating equipment are auctioned annually at Surplex with resulting CO2 reduction amounting to around 1,300 tonnes every year.

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