The three pathways to create a circular plastics system in Europe includes a smarter use of plastics and the use of renewable raw materials


The report conducted by the European Environment Agency looked at areas such as plastic production, consumption and trade (Credit: Shutterstock/Oleksandr Berezko)

Towards the end of January 2021, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report investigating how countries in Europe can achieve a more sustainable and circular plastics system.

It also found that, while awareness, concern and action regarding plastic waste have grown enormously in recent years, there are many other less known impacts of plastics.

The report, titled Plastics, the circular economy and Europe’s environment – a priority for action, looks at plastic production, consumption and trade, the environmental and climate impact of plastics during their life and explores the translation towards a circular economy.

The EEA’s executive director Hans Bruyninckx said: “The challenges posed by plastics are to a large extent due to the fact that our production and consumption systems are not sustainable.

“The Covid-19 pandemic and climate change have amplified public attention for the plastic waste crisis we face.

“It is clear that the best way is to shift to a fundamentally sustainable and circular plastic economy, where we use plastics much more wisely and better reuse and recycle them.

“Moreover, producing plastics from renewable raw materials should be the starting point.”


Plastics production, use, and trade in Europe continues to grow, according to an EEA report

The EEA report also highlights the fact that the production, use and trade of plastics in Europe continues to grow.

In order to counteract this, the European Union (EU) has put in place an increasing number of policies and initiatives to address the challenges posed by plastics, in particular those posed by single-use plastics.

In 2018, the European Commission presented the “world’s first” comprehensive strategy on plastics in a circular economy.

This lays out the EU’s approach to addressing the challenges of plastics, followed by the Single-Use Plastics Directive in 2019.

The EEA report highlights three pathways for the way ahead, which aims to point towards ways Europe can ensure it achieves a sustainable and circular plastics system.


Three ways Europe can achieve a sustainable and circular plastics system

Being smarter as to how plastics are used

Through policy, business models and consumer action, the smarter use pathway aims to reduce the use of unnecessary plastics by ensuring the right plastic is used for the right purpose.

It also looks at how best to substitute plastics with more resource-efficient materials when this is beneficial and possible.

In addition, it addresses the environmental impact of plastic pollution and exponential growth rates in plastic production and consumption.

And, instead of relying on technological fixes such as better recycling systems, the pathway aims to reduce the projected growth curve of plastic production and consumption in a smarter way.

As part of this pathway, the report highlighted seven recommendations from the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council to transform the plastics systems.

These included banning the exporting of plastic waste to third countries, adopting a target of zero plastic waste to landfill, and minimise consumption and one-way use, as well as introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.

In addition to this, it calls on the EU to end misleading information about bio-based alternatives, to develop advanced recycling and reprocessing technology, limit additives and types of resin to improve recyclability and introduce price regulations and quotas for recycled content.

Future initiatives involved in this pathway could include looking at key plastic sectors such as the automotive, textiles and agricultural film industries.

In addition to widening the scope of action, standards and guidelines on how to achieve a “smarter use of plastics” could be further developed and used as part of green public procurement or corporate social responsibility initiatives.


Increase in circularity

The predominant objective of the “increased circularity” pathway is to transition from a linear economy to a circular economy, in which the value and utility of plastics are maintained within closed loops.

A major problem this pathway could tackle is the current “take-make-dispose” plastics system, which leads to low resource efficiency.

This addresses the material inefficiency of the plastics system, in which only a limited amount of plastics is currently conserved.

Some solutions it promotes include a focus on technical and systemic solutions, along with circular business models that help unlock material energy savings by enabling plastic waste to re-enter the system after use.

Examples of these types of solutions can be found in the growing number of initiatives on a circular economy that have been embraced by the European Commission and a wide range of companies.

These include policy tools, such as deposit refund systems for PET bottles that are common in the Nordic countries, and EPR schemes on plastic packaging in places such as the Netherlands and France.


Use renewable raw materials

The driving force behind the renewable raw materials pathway is to reduce the number of plastics that are derived from fossil fuels.

It highlights the plastic sector’s dependence on fossil feedstock and the implications of this in terms of energy and resource security.

Solutions this pathway promotes include a focus on decoupling plastics from fossil feedstock by switching to renewable feedstocks, in line with the broader EU actions on climate change and bioeconomy.

The benefits will result in a reduced dependency on imports and fossil resources, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased rural development.

A major driver of this moving forward includes the new Circular Economy Action Plan, which will develop a policy framework on bio-based plastics.

When it comes to land-use competition and availability of feedstock, it’s necessary to diversify the source of non-fossil feedstocks to include second and third-generation biomass and carbon capture.

While all three of these pathways can have an impact on more general plastic trends, the report emphasises they’re not silver bullets.

The “smarter use” pathway focuses on production and use to alleviate problems connected to leakage and toxicity, but spends less time looking at the impacts of climate change and other negative externalities.

“Increased circularity” aims to integrate the entire value into a circular economy for plastics, however this often does not address the expanding levels of consumption of or the dependence of plastics on fossil resources.

And, while the “renewable material” pathway takes on the fossil lock-in of plastics, it doesn’t look at their use and waste management.