How to improve Europe’s haphazard recovery of plastic waste

Inconsistency, confusion and lack of common standards all contribute to low recovery, but the solutions are many and would push Europe quickly toward circular economics.

When you finish a yogurt, do throw the plastic pot in the trash or the recycle bin? For some cities the pot is trash, for others it’s recyclable, and for yet others it’s still up for debate.

This confusion over one yogurt pot is a microcosm of the larger inconsistencies and challenges facing plastic waste recycling and recovery in Europe, and the numbers confirm that lack of common standards.

Europeans use almost 50 million tonnes of plastic every year, but only 25% is sorted and ready for recovery, according to Jean-Marc Boursier, chairman of the French federation of waste management services and Group Senior Executive VP in charge of Recycling & Recovery Europe for Suez.

On a global scale, the numbers are even lower — only 14% of packaging is recycled. The remainder, worth from $80 to $120 billion a year, is lost after a single use, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It’s the “take, make, dispose” economic model. What we need, according to the Foundation, is “the new plastic economy” — where plastics are designed to be used over and over again.

What will help spur adoption of that new model is an imminent ban, by the European Commission, on incinerating plastic or dumping it in landfills.

Speaking at the first Circular Economy European Summit in Barcelona last month, Mr. Boursier explained some of the challenges Suez has faced firsthand at its state-of-the-art “plastic transformation” plant near Maastricht, Holland, a joint venture with QCP. The futuristic looking facility shreds, cleans and compounds plastics to produce new plastic for packaging, and counts among its customers L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble and Ikea.

The plant was meant to be a great success but is losing money, Boursier said. One reason is the price of virgin plastic, which has dropped with the price of oil, down almost 40% in two years. The price of recycled plastic has also gone down approximately 40%, he said, but other costs like collection, sorting and recycling are fixed.

“Our customers are keen on the circular economy,” Boursier said. “But they don’t want to pay higher to get recycled products, which cost them 20% more than purchasing virgin plastic.”

Another reason for losing money is the complexity of recovering plastic. Boursier explained that the Maastricht plant is fed from five different countries — Belgium, Holland, France, Germany and UK — and the inflow is significantly different from each country because the sorting habits are different.

In addition, packaging producers are using the cheapest and lightest materials to reduce costs, but as a result are creating new combinations of plastics that are harder to recycle. For instance, some milk containers are now made of PET with a layer of carbon inside to make them dark and help the milk last longer. But it’s impossible for the plant to separate the carbon from the PET, Boursier said. Ketchup bottles are another example. The plant is discovering that more and more bottles have silicon in the plastic, which makes them more rigid, but also harder to recycle.

What can be done? Boursier has a slew of suggestions.

His first idea goes straight to the circular economy model, getting cities, the packaging industry and recycling plants to work together on packaging recyclability even before it hits the market. Known as eco-conception, it means “we’re not thinking about recovery at the end of the process but at the beginning,” Boursier said.

The second element is to encourage people to sort better. “We need to find ways in cities to incentivize people to separate better at the source. My Swedish friends have 11 bins at home. They are very good at segregating the waste flow,” he said. Europe’s goal is to recover 55% of waste by 2025. “If we can’t get people to separate at source, it will be hard to reach 55% recovery,” he added.

The third idea is to factor in the price of carbon and the environmental impact when comparing recycled material to virgin. “If we put the price of carbon around 40 euro per tonne, each time we recover 1 ton of plastic, we reduce emissions of CO2 by 1.6 ton [or 64 euros]… That 64 euros can be used to incentivize construction of new plants and will reduce the gap between virgin and recycled,” Boursier said.

This logo doesn’t mean recycled

Fourth would be to change eco labelling. The “recycle” logo we’re all familiar with — three arrows in a triangular mobius loop — which shows up on almost everything doesn’t mean the product is recycled, only that the company has paid its eco contribution. “As a consumer,” Boursier said, “I want to know if my packaging is recycled, and not recyclable.”

To incentivize the use of recycled products, the Suez Group is promoting the idea that any product of at least 50% recycled material should have reduced VAT or none at all, because it was paid the first time round, Boursier explained. It would create a financial incentive for the consumer and force brands to use more and more recycled product.

Although current recovery rates are still low, Boursier is optimistic.

“I strongly believe we are on the verge of this circular economy as far as plastic is concerned. It’s already a reality for metal, paper, glass and wood,” he said.

Boursier cited the public’s growing environmental awareness as well as companies thinking longer term and focusing more on sustainable development as the reason for his optimism. This “will drive them towards increased use of recycled plastic.”

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