A circular economy for plastics: A driver for business competitiveness and environmental improvement

Benoît Calatayud and Jean-Baptiste Perrin
8 Sep 2022

While global plastic production declined by 0.3% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has continued to trend upwards since then.  

Current plastic production (400 million tons worldwide according to the OECD) could double by 2050. So, there is an urgent need to rationalize plastic production and use to limit the environmental and economic impact of plastics. While there is growing awareness about the environmental damage caused by plastics, their use increased during the pandemic due to their hygienic properties, low production costs and main characteristics (such as weight, robustness and flexibility which makes it extremely difficult to find a substitute). 

This poses a problem as the environmental and economic damage associated with their use is considerable. More than 12 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, and their economic impact is also significant. According to the Ellen MacArthur foundation, 95% of the value of plastic packaging materials, i.e., around €100 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short cycle, which often ends after the first use of the plastics.

Acting on the complete plastics value chain (production, use, reuse, recycling) is crucial to reducing their environmental impact
 
For this to happen, it is urgent to break the traditional linear economy model (take, make, waste) to adopt a development model based on the circular economy, which consists in creating loops from the production phase, for an optimal revalorization process once plastics reach its end of use. This would enable for businesses to retain the value currently lost in the linear business cycle and therefore drive a local, economic development. In this sense, companies are encouraged to use and recycle plastics in a better way.
 
What can we do to get there?
 
The objective is not to make plastics disappear, but to produce and consume them better, through eco-design, a decrease in the use of single-use plastics, and an increase in chemical recycling for specific uses.
 
Given their essential properties in the food and health/hygiene fields and the absence of equivalent alternatives to date, it is not desirable for plastics to disappear completely. Rather, it is preferable to develop eco-design, i.e., to integrate environmental aspects into the design and development of products in a life cycle approach, and to reduce the use of single-use plastics.
 
This includes reducing their use where they are not necessary, such as in packaging. According to a report by the European Court of Auditors, the production of plastic packaging waste continues to grow in Europe and is now close to 18 million tons per year. Packaging now accounts for just over 60% of total plastic waste generation in Europe. However, the coming into force of an amendment to the Basel Convention no longer allowing the export of uncontaminated plastic waste as well as the desire of Asia, and particularly China, to receive less plastic are forcing Europe to recycle more plastic in its territory. This is a real challenge, as collection and recycling procedures are relatively undeveloped in Europe.
 
Beyond this recycling objective, decreasing the use of single-use plastics and promoting the development of reusable and recyclable plastics must be a priority.  
 
Achieving these goals creates a series of benefits for companies if recycling plastic waste becomes profitable. With greater collection, and especially a higher recycling rate, a standardized system for selective collection and sorting of waste across the European Union would save about €100 per ton collected, according to the European Commission, and would add more value for a more competitive and resilient plastics industry. This is key to European sovereignty in this matter!
 
The actions to be implemented for a true circular economy for plastics occur at all levels of governance

  • Following the example of what NGOs such as the WWF or Green Peace are proposing, a legally binding international treaty on plastic waste and microplastics must be put in place, along the lines of the Paris Agreement signed on 12 December 2015. This treaty would address the issue of plastics in a holistic manner with a binding and therefore effective approach. The March 2022 UN binding agreement is a nice step forward that needs to be internationally strengthened.
     
  • A European or global scientific platform on plastic pollution could be created, at the initiative of the European Union, to enable shared access to standardized data, like the one set up in the climate field by the IPCC or the one set up in Europe through the Circular Plastics Alliance, which aims to specifically promote the recycling of plastics in a circular economy approach.
     
  • Eco-design must be developed, at least at the European level, to target plastic-containing products throughout their life cycle, from production to use. This is the case, for example, with the “Clean Bottle” project launched by the startup company Eco In Pack, a solution for the reuse of glass bottles through bottle washing, regardless of their shape.
     
  • Sorting instructions must be generalized to encourage reuse and recycling, and eventually composting, of plastic waste. The project of the local public company TriGironde is a representative project in the field, with a public-private collaboration. It brings together seven partner communities, with the support of the Caisse d’Epargne bank. The project (with a final costing of €24 million, including €5.7 million in support from Ademe) aims to develop a high-performance sorting center that will be able to identify and distribute plastics based on their size, shape, and composition, with purification of the plastics to remove any trace of steel or aluminum.
     
  • Innovation must be supported through the European Investment Bank and European innovation programs in recycling to accelerate the development of new recycling technologies, including chemical recycling, which could complement mechanical recycling provided that the deposits are secured, and the development of microplastic filters, particularly for washing machines.
     
  • Finally, the production of biodegradable plastics must be clearly encouraged through the exclusion of this type of plastic from the categories targeted by the 2019 European directive on single-use plastics.

    Written with the involvement of the Capgemini Sustainability Accelerator team

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