EU report on sustainable plastics

STEPS researchers co-write new EU-report on sustainable plastics

There is no single silver bullet for plastics, the industry is way too complex. That message is delivered in a new report from the European Environment Agency, which, however, summarises three pathways forward for a more sustainable plastic system: smarter use, renewables and circular systems.

 – The increasing use of disposable plastic during the corona pandemic has made it even clearer that we must take a holistic approach to the entire plastic sector. This is just the tip of the iceberg, says Fredric Bauer, researcher at the Environment and Energy System at Lund University, who has co-written the report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) together with researchers at IVL Swedish Environmental Institute.

The report aims to tell the story of plastic: its opportunities and challenges and the effects of plastic on our environment. In particular, the link between plastic production and climate change is highlighted. Since 99 percent of all plastic is made from fossil raw materials, production contributes to large emissions of greenhouse gases. In the European Union (EU) alone, plastic production emits around 13.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, which is around 20% of the chemical industry’s emissions throughout the EU. ‘

– Much focus has been on plastic waste in the oceans and less on the plastic’s other environmental impact. It is good that there is now a clear link between the climate and plastic – especially since most measures both in Sweden and at EU level have been about reducing litter instead of plastic production, says Fredric Bauer.

Three ways forward
Based on STEPS’ research on sustainable plastic pathways, the report identifies three ways forward for Europe’s plastics systems: smart use, renewable raw materials and circular systems.

1. Smart use is about reducing the use of unnecessary plastic, using the right plastic for the right purpose and replacing plastic with more resource-efficient materials when appropriate.

2. Renewable raw materials are about reducing the amount of plastic that is made from fossil raw materials and instead using renewable raw materials such as starch, sugar, cellulose or in some cases carbon dioxide.

3. Circular systems aim to go from a linear and short-lived use of plastic to more circular processes where the plastic remains in the system through reuse and recycling.

– We wanted to identify three clear paths that focus on all parts of the plastic life cycle. By emphasising that measures are needed in all areas, we want to make it clearer how different sectors can work to reduce the amount of plastic in the system and reduce the environmental and climate impact from the plastic used, says Tobias Nielsen at IVL.

– It is also about highlighting that there is no single silver bullet for plastics. The plastics sector is extremely complex. Even chemical recycling, where plastic is broken down into smaller molecules that can be used to make new plastic, which today is highlighted as the solution to the low recycling rate, cannot alone solve all problems, says Fredric Bauer.

System change is required at all levels – politicians have the greatest responsibility
The most important message in the report, in addition to identifying combined measures, is that it so clearly emphasises that it is entire value chains that must be changed, says Fredric Bauer. The entire plastic system must become more sustainable. And it is the politicians and the industry who have the greatest responsibility – something that should be repeated not just once but several times!

 – Since this report is aimed at everyone from the general public to the politicians and officials working in Brussels, I think it is good that the responsibility is so clearly placed on a higher level rather than on us consumers. The hope is that it can make it easier for industries to identify new work practices, and that it can help make it easier for citizens and interest groups to demand measures at the right level, says Fredric Bauer.

 Producer responsibility
Another important piece of the puzzle in a more sustainable use of plastic is increased producer responsibility for plastics – something that is not mentioned to any great extent in the report. Producer responsibility means that companies have to collect and send products for recycling, but today the regulation place too low demands on the actual recycling aspect. Currently, there is producer responsibility for, among other things. packaging, cars and electrical equipment in Sweden and Europe, but the recycling of plastic from these products is still low. A Swedish government inquiry that was completed in December 2020 has proposed to also introduce producer responsibility for textiles.

But Fredric Bauer emphasizes that the whole system must be made more efficient.

 – Producer responsibility does not work properly. It has not had the desired effect on circular systems, for example on packaging, as the regulation has focused on the packaging being collected but not on it actually being recycled. The existing producer responsibilities need to be sharpened, this must also apply if the system is expanded.

– The construction industry accounts for the second largest use of all plastics used in Europe today. If producer responsibility were introduced in the construction sector, I think we would see a completely different pressure in terms of designing products that are more resource-efficient and easier to recycle when they are obsolete, he concludes.

Read the full report: Plastics, the circular economy and Europe’s Environment on the EEA’s website, eea.europa.eu

About researcher Fredric Bauer

Portrait of Fredric Bauer

Fredric Bauer is a researcher at Environmental and Energy Systems Studies at Lund University.

Read more about Fredric Bauer on Lund University’s Research Portal