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Scientists propose the best path to a circular plastics industry

‘Current efforts to resolve the plastics crisis are ineffective and misleading,’ warns the European Academies of Science (EASAC), which is proposing a seven-step response.

Global plastic production has hit 400 million tonnes per year but the recycling of polymers and smart waste management solutions are notably lagging behind, it maintains. ‘In the history of mankind, the 21st century might actually be remembered as the plastics age,’ says EASAC president Professor Christina Moberg. She hopes the findings of an 18-month investigation by leading scientists from 28 different countries will help EU policymakers ‘transform the system’.

The seven recommendations detailed in ‘Packaging Plastics in the Circular Economy’ are:

  • Ban exports of plastic waste
  • Extend producer responsibility schemes
  • Minimise production and consumption of single-use products (which will help minimise landfill)
  • Develop advanced recycling and reprocessing technology
  • Limit additives and types of resin to improve recyclability
  • Enforce price regulations and quotas for recycled content
  • End misleading narratives about bio-based alternatives

‘We need a clear hierarchy in recycling,’ says Professor Michael Norton. ‘Recycling plastics for use as the same product, such as PET bottles into PET bottles, must come first. Energy recovery should be a last resort after better options, such as open-loop recycling for use in another product and molecular recycling, have been exhausted.’

Norton argues that switching to ‘bio-materials’ cannot be justified on resource or environmental grounds. ‘They can mislead consumers by creating a false image of sustainability and thereby risk prolonging today’s throw-away mentality.’

According to Professor Gaetano Guerra, ‘Europe must apply ambitious extended producer responsibility fees to large volume plastics packaging. The system should include relevant tax reductions for recycled plastics, thus forcing to design choices aimed at recyclability.’

Dr Attila Varga suggests we need ‘a mandatory and uniform European labelling scheme related to actual rather than theoretical recyclability’. She also maintains that manufacturers and processors in the plastics industry ‘have not shown much interest’ in what happens after their products are used.

The report maintains the technical and economic viability of recycling would greatly benefit from reducing the use of additives. Some of which are toxic, and simplifying the number of polymers that can be used for specific applications. This would avoid unnecessary problems for ‘easily recyclable’ polymers such as PET and PE.

Another important policy measure to cut single-use plastics, according to Dr Annemiek Verrips, would be to extend direct return schemes to a wider range of containers including single-use.

The full EASAC report can be downloaded free of charge here. The publication is the result of an 18-month investigation supported by all of its member academies.  

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