Every year, Europe produces 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, of which only less than 30% is collected for recycling. Around the world, 85% of these plastics are found on beaches, in seas and oceans… and often also in the entrails of fish and other cetaceans.
Without really knowing the consequences for our health, residues of these plastics are sometimes also found on our plates. This alarming fact prompts Europe to direct investment and innovation towards circular and sustainable solutions for environmental protection. In response to China’s recent ban on the import of plastic waste, and in order to combat increasing pollution, the European Commission has proposed a set of measures to transform the way products are designed, manufactured, used and recycled in the EU.
According to Bettina Lorz, Senior Expert at the European Commission’s DG Environment, 65% of the directives of the “Circular Economy 2015” action plan have been implemented. The Plastics strategy, launched in 2018, is equally ambitious, targeting the recycling by 2030 of all plastic packaging on the EU market. For plastics used in new products, the objective is the same. “Currently, only 4 to 6% of these plastics come from recycling. This figure will quadruple with the implementation of the new Plastic strategy,” she explains. “The same strategy should also improve the level of information on substances of concern in recycled products, waste and plastics.
In order to address this problem, Luxembourg has also implemented actions against plastic waste such as, a ban on the free distribution of plastic bags thicker than 15 microns by points of sale from the end of this year. The country therefore strongly encourages efforts to promote sustainable plastic waste management and more and more players are taking part in this movement.
Echoing this desire to make progress, Luxinnovation’s Materials & Manufacturing and EcoInnovation clusters organised the “Greater Region Plastic Conference” as part of the European Interreg Greater Green project. Some sixty industrialists and researchers from Luxembourg and the Greater Region attended the event to discuss the challenges of plastic recycling and the future of this commonly used material.
The observation is simple: plastics pollute, because most of them are created from synthetic polymers, i.e. based on petroleum products. In addition, most plastics are currently not biodegradable or reusable at the moment because of their specific properties (impermeability, resistance, very long life span, flame retardants, etc.), Nearly 30,000 tonnes of plastic waste are generated each year in Luxembourg, with a recycling rate of around 32%. According to Paul Rasqué, Attaché at the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Infrastructure, “one of the objectives of the national strategy is to reach 70% by 2022 for packaging waste in general. For plastic packaging waste, we need to reach a recycling rate of 50% in 2025 at the latest”.
It is not a waste, it is a resource
Following the roadmap to move towards a circular economy necessarily means rethinking the plastics industry. During the day, testimonies from industrialists wishing to make their contribution in this field were given. “One of our key focus areas is the innovation of plastic materials: we make them easy to recycle, while maintaining the necessary protective properties that packaging must have,” explains Denis Rousseau, Labelling Marketing Manager at Jindal Films, world leader in the manufacture of special films for food packaging and labelling. “Our credo is ‘Do more with less’, i.e. use less plastic while maintaining a high level of performance.”
Presentations focused on new plastics that do not contain any artificial polymers but are derived from renewable resources. Citing numerous examples of bio-based plastics or bioplastic made from biomass, speakers proposed alternatives to polluting plastics and presented innovative approaches to produce and consume differently.
The logistic and legislative aspects were also discussed. Even if concerns are often national, the problems exist also at the European level. “Take the border crossing. What is declared waste in one country cannot easily cross the border into another country,” says Elodie Jupin, Circular Economy Manager EMEA at Tarkett, a specialist in innovative flooring. “But for us, it is not a waste, it is a resource that we use to make our products. So it is a problem of legislation: you can’t deal with a problem individually, everything is linked.” This underlines the importance of networks of partners such as Greater Green that bring together different players in the value chain who can each make their own contribution. “We can do a lot more and a lot better, but we have to start somewhere,” she adds.
All participants at this conference were unanimous in saying that it is necessary to reduce and reuse raw materials, rather than constantly buy new ones. “This is both an environmental and economic objective. The life cycle of materials must be taken into consideration, from their manufacture and use until the end of their life. Ecodesign is a major step for manufacturers to minimise waste and maximise the reuse and recycling of plastic materials. The companies we monitor understand the full potential of this paradigm shift, which means considering waste no longer as worthless materials but as a resource to be recycled in their finished products,” says Caroline Muller, Manager of the Luxembourg Materials & Manufacturing Cluster.
The well-established collaboration mechanism set up between the public and private sectors and the government within the clusters provides a solid basis for dialogue and innovation on which companies can build. “The word ‘cooperation’ is, in fact, crucial. It is impossible to find solutions to such complex problems on our own. Collaboration between companies, researchers and public authorities is key,” says Sasha Baillie, CEO of Luxinnovation.
Prior to this event, several workshops with committed companies were organised by the clusters. These workshops highlighted common problems and the need to intervene. “It was important for us to better understand the needs of industry. This requires the exchange of best practices, which is why we opened these discussions to the Greater Region. The current challenge is not only to reduce plastic waste, but also to create real waste recovery projects. This can only be achieved with a collaborative approach,” concludes Anja Höthker, Project Manager at Luxinnovation.