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

Plastic plays a vital role in the European economy, yet rising plastic pollution has pushed the European Union (EU) to implement circularity targets across the entire plastic (waste) value chain. These include a target of 55 per cent recyclable packaging by 2030.

Despite ambitions to be the world’s leading circular economy, the EU will underperform on plastics recycling, where only 11 per cent of post-consumer plastics are recycled. Meanwhile, “on-par” (product-to-product) plastic recycling is limited to 2-3 per cent.

Current industry endeavours are woefully insufficient to create a circular plastics economy due mainly to longstanding structural challenges across the value chain. Polyolefins account for half of plastic waste and two-thirds of plastic packaging waste in the EU. Between 4 and 7 million metric tonnes of the 20 million metric tonnes of polyolefin waste generated yearly in the EU are recycled. Approximately 60 per cent of polyolefin waste (12 million tonnes annually) is incinerated or landfilled.

Against an ever-increasing amount of plastic waste threatening to consume our world, this report outlines why action must be taken now. Europe must implement new strategies and employ the latest technology throughout the waste-to-materials value chain. By improving failing infrastructure now, ambitious recycling objectives can still be met.

“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. That means re-using and recycling plastics at scale.

“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.”

Mark Barnaba, Chairman, Sea the Future (pioneered by Minderoo Foundation)

Report conclusion

This report identifies an apparent mismatch between the European Union’s circularity goals and the existing reality of low recycling rates for plastic, which shows approximately half of plastic waste is not sorted for recycling.

Most of the plastic waste collected and sorted is still incinerated, landfilled, or shipped elsewhere. Only 11 per cent of all post-consumer plastic waste in the EU is recycled into new products. For the EU to achieve its targets, it is necessary to solve critical value chain challenges.

Establishing systems that enable collecting, sorting, and recycling multiple types of plastic is essential to meeting EU targets. Extensive additional capacity is required to increase the volume and improve the quality of recycled plastic. Upgrading the end-to-end system will cost EUR 20 billion in new infrastructure.