From smartphones and bicycles to mattresses, insulation, solar panels or lifesaving medical materials; plastics have exceptional and wide-ranging properties that improve our quality of life and reduce energy consumption. But we cannot ignore that plastics come under fire in the societal debate and that still too much plastic waste ends up in the environment. And if there is one place plastics most definitely do not belong, it is in our forests, along sides roads, or in our rivers and seas.
So, should plastic be cast aside as unsustainable? Can we be sure that alternatives will have indeed a lower environmental impact? Is it not better to make a bigger effort to keep plastics out of our environment, both in Belgium and across the world? And focus on the development of new recycling technologies and infrastructure so to put plastics at the heart of the circular economy?
Let’s start at the beginning. Plastic is a collective term for a very wide family of materials. Just like metal is a collective term for iron, copper, zinc, cobalt, aluminium and so on. As with metals, each of these plastic materials has unique and different properties, depending on their chemical structure, their design or the combination with certain substances that are added to make the plastic more flexible, lighter, with a more stable colour or more heat-resistant.
In contrast to metals, however, which are found in the earth’s crust, most plastics are man-made or synthetic, with the exception of a few biopolymers. Since the discovery of plastics at the beginning of the last century, they have been used for a huge range of applications. Depending on consumer demand, the chemical composition was adjusted to optimally meet new societal needs.
Plastics have often replaced scarce materials such as copper in pipes, or have offered a cheaper alternative for naturally occurring raw materials such as ivory or cotton. Plastics are also much lighter than materials such as glass, which means they help to reduce the CO2 footprint in the automobile sector or packaging industry. They also offer a highly suitable replacement for hazardous materials such as lead in water pipes.
They are also excellent electrical insulators and are therefore frequently used as sheaths for electrical cables. They offer fantastic thermal insulation too and, when used in building products, reduce CO2 emissions by a lot more than is emitted during their manufacture. As a result of their excellent barrier characteristics, they are ideal for sterile medical devices or in food packaging, where they help to extend the shelf-life of food. They play an important role in renewable energy and increase the efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines, for example by making the blades stronger and longer.
In all these applications, plastics offer solutions to contribute to the realisation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. No wonder, then, that these materials are so widely used. And that Belgium developed into one of the most important production centres in Europe for many polymers and advanced plastics processing.
So, where does it goes wrong? Well, after use, but sometimes also during the design of a product. In the era of over-consumption, the growing waste mountain and the need for recyclability have long been given too little consideration. Even today, far too many valuable materials end up in household waste after their use phase or, worse, end up in a landfill. On average in Europe, a quarter of plastic waste is still landfilled. Fortunately, this is no longer allowed in our country.
A large part of the world’s population, by contrast, have no access whatsoever to the type of proper waste collection system as we all know it. That is why many companies from the plastic value chain have united in The Alliance to End Plastic Waste. In collaboration with local communities, this initiative invests in the collection, sorting and recycling of used plastics, in countries where the need is the highest. By preventing plastics ending up in the natural environment, we are tackling the plastic soup and micro-plastics at source.
Innovative vacuum cleaner removes historical plastic pellet pollution in Antwerp port
Towards 100% traceability and recycling of industrial plastic packaging together with Valipac
But the ambitions are higher. In a circular economy, we must strive for 100% traceability and maximum recycling within Europe. The European action plan for Circular Economy has a dual aim: to tap into fewer new raw materials and to limit energy consumption. In Europe, we have limited quantities of raw materials so it’s all about retaining the value of these materials for as long as possible and with the highest possible quality.
This does not just concern recycling materials from waste, but also the use of alternatives, renewable or circular raw materials, reducing material usage in general, and maximising the reuse of objects. This is where the great advantage of plastics comes into play. They are extremely highly performant and at the same time extremely light materials. This allows you to achieve a maximum result with a minimum use of materials. Just think of the strong lightweight materials that make cars or planes less heavy, so they consume less.
Although these advantages are often recognised, plastics continue to suffer from a persistent image problem and for many they have become a symbol of the throwaway society. Nevertheless, plastics recycling in our country has increased by over half in the past fifteen years but, as elsewhere in Europe, has stagnated at around 30 to 35%. This is not yet comparable to recycling figures for paper or glass.
But we must not be drawn into comparing apples with oranges. The diversity of plastics and their applications is much greater than for other materials. Four important aspects deserve greater attention in this context:
Yet it will be just as important to recycle other used plastic objects in addition to packaging, in order to avoid the use of new raw materials as much as possible. This is easier said than done. In building applications, for example, we are talking about objects with a long life span of decades. They may contain certain substances that can no longer be used today or, due to ageing, the quality of the material may have deteriorated too much to be processed by mechanical recycling.
This does not mean that we must simply incinerate materials that come to the end of their useful life. There are sustainable alternatives in the form of emerging recycling technologies, such as physical and chemical recycling. In contrast to mechanical recycling, plastics are not ground up in these processes, but selectively dissolved or broken down into their original building blocks. This allows the multi-layered materials to be separated and recycled, impurities and undesirable substances to be removed, and plastic waste to be converted into raw materials for new plastics or for use in the chemicals industry.
Both innovative recycling technologies offer opportunities to recycle used plastics that are currently so-called ‘non-recyclable’. Moreover, this is done at a high quality that is equivalent to virgin materials or primary raw materials. As a result, these recycled plastics can be used in applications that have to meet strict safety and quality requirements, such as food packaging or medical applications.
Genuine high quality recycling. This quality is of extreme importance to plastic convertors in order to ensure recycled products are used on a large scale, and at the same time keep up with the ever stricter European product regulations. The permanent supply of recycled plastic material at a consistently high quality and in sufficiently large quantities is the most important prerequisite for realising the circular ambitions.
Chemical recycling also offers opportunities to keep complex material flows, such as mixed plastic waste – which today is to a large extent exported to other continents and recycled there mostly at low value – within the European borders and to upgrade them here. In order to do this in an economically viable manner, it is vital to create sufficient scale. This implies that plastic waste within the European Union must be transported easily between the different Member States.
Belgium is particularly well positioned for this, with a central location, important supply ports, an integrated chemical clusters and a strong concentration of plastic convertors. It is also important that governments recognise chemical recycling as a fully-fledged recycling technique, which complements mechanical recycling, and takes this technology into account in the recycling rates and in reports on the share of recycled plastics used in new objects.
Another important challenge lies in the recycling of so-called thermosets which cannot be processed through mechanical recycling. Belgian companies are leading the way in the development of new recycling technologies for polyurethane foams. In combination with the new system for collecting and processing old mattresses, Valumat, this could really put the Belgian plastics industry on the map as a pioneer in the circularity of this type of material.
The circular economy involves a paradigm shift from waste to materials. Previously, the emphasis has been on prevention and waste recycling. In a circular economy, the focus shifts to preventing the use of new raw materials and incorporating recycled materials in new products. In other words, we need to move away from a waste-oriented frame of mind that is fixated on the recycling rate and move towards economic ecosystems in which material cycles are central and avoided raw material use becomes the new benchmark.
This also requires an adapted legislative framework. The use of recycled products is too often hampered by current legislation, standards, specifications, or requirements which, in many cases, prevent the use of plastic recyclate. When the recovered materials fulfil the same technical and quality requirements as virgin raw materials, however, there is no reason to maintain this obstacle.
Also in product design, the impact of the design, the material combinations, the choices of colour and the ability to dismantle the product with respect to the recycling and reuse of the materials after use are often overlooked. Greater collaboration and better information flows throughout the entire industrial value chain, from producer to waste processor, will be crucial in order to design, create, reuse, and recycle sustainable plastics and circular products. This will then enable sustainable and objective material choices, based on life-cycle analyses that weigh the environmental impact of various materials throughout their life cycle.
Plastics are valuable materials that are indispensable to our quality of life. Thanks to insulation and lightweight plastic materials, we are making our buildings and transport more climate-friendly. The recycling of plastics is on the rise, but it can and must improve even more. Chemical recycling can be part of the solution, but the legal obstacles must also be tackled. This is how we integrate plastics into the circular economy.