No Plastic Waste14 Sep 2022

From Waste to Commodity: Delivering on the EU’s vision of a circular plastics economy

A new report shows that establishing systems that enable collecting, sorting, and recycling multiple types of plastic is essential to meeting the European Union’s circularity goals.

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A worker presents a final product made from used nylon fishnets in Plougonvelin, western France. Photo Credit: Fred TANNEAU / AFP via Getty Images.

Minderoo Foundation and multinational advisory firm KPMG have jointly released new analysis that raises hope that the European Union can still meet the ambitious target of 55 per cent recyclable packing by 2030. But to do so will require a 20bn EUR upgrade of the whole waste-to-material value chain, including infrastructure for mixed waste sorting, high-quality sorting, advanced mechanical recycling and chemical recycling.

Despite ambitions to lead the world, the EU is set to underperform on plastics recycling, where currently only 11 per cent of postconsumer plastics are recycled. Meanwhile, ‘on-par’ (product-to-product) plastic recycling is limited to 2-3 per cent. Current industry efforts to develop a circular plastics economy are woefully insufficient due mainly to long-standing structural challenges throughout the value chain.

Among the key issues identified:

  • Only half of the post-consumer plastic waste is being collected for recycling.
  • Two-thirds of the plastic waste collected and sorted is not recycled in Europe; instead, it is incinerated, landfilled, or exported.
  • Plastic that is recycled in the European Union is often limited in quality and quantity.

The report recommends that systems that enable the collection, separation, and recycling of different types of plastic must be established at scale to reach EU targets. The resulting increase in capacity would be enough to produce a more significant amount of high-quality recycled plastic, but only if an end-to-end system upgrade happens.

The co-authors estimate that this will require EUR 20 billion in additional funding. Mark Barnaba, Chairman of Sea The Future (pioneered by Minderoo Foundation) said: “Smarter infrastructure needs to be built, investments need to be made, and policies introduced to set the conditions for the entire value chain to act.

“Changing how we produce and use plastics and manage plastic materials after use must be the focus of effort right now. We urgently need to reduce dependency on virgin plastic and re-imagine plastic ‘waste’ as a valuable commodity.”

Richard Threlfall, Global Head of KPMG Impact, calls on industry to rise to the challenge. Threlfall said: “While incremental solutions through innovation are welcome, the pace of change that is required needs bold interventions to rapidly adapt entire value chains. We call on businesses to work with policymakers to set clear legislative frameworks that stimulate change in producer and consumer behaviour.”

A clear recommendation of this report is that EU and national policies must level the playing field for mixed waste sorting and that Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes must compensate mixed waste sorting for plastics by default, as shown in the examples of Denmark and the Netherlands.

Reducing reliance on virgin plastic will, at least for the short term, see buyers paying a premium for recycled plastic. But by committing to paying a premium for recycled polyolefin in the short to medium term, plastic buyers invest in new recycling capacity and, therefore, help reduce the supply imbalance and bring down prices over the long term.

However, only a combination of investment, changes to the legislative framework, and brand commitments will ensure the accomplishment of these European Union objectives.

Minderoo Foundation
by Minderoo Foundation

Established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest in 2001, we are a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Minderoo Foundation is proudly Australian, with key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.

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