On Tuesday the 10th of November, the webinar ‘Transforming Plastics’ took place. This webinar was part of the Smart Sustainable Cities webinar series by the University of Applied Science of Utrecht.
At the start, we looked into the current status of plastics, globally and zoomed into the Netherlands. Plastic is durable, lightweight, and easily shaped. These properties make it ideal for many industrial products and everyday items. In healthcare plastic contributes to saving lives by ensuring sterility and safety. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. However, contrary to the original idea of positioning plastic as a high-quality material, it is today used mainly for packaging and single-use products. These types of products have a very short lifespan, 40% of plastic products are garbage after less than a month. But what happens after it becomes garbage? Unfortunately, not enough, globally only 10% of the plastic waste is recycled. The Netherlands only scores slightly better, with a total of 15% of plastic waste that is recycled.
When current trends continue by 2050 the plastic production will use 20% of the worlds total oil consumption. This leads to a total of 56 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. When we translate this towards our total remaining carbon budget (agreed upon in the Paris Agreement), plastic production alone could consume between 10 and 13 % of the earth’s remaining carbon budget. Time to act!
But what kind of transition processes are needed for the needed change? The participants of the webinar discussed the role of consumers as key players in this transition. They mentioned that it is often not clear for consumers how to sort and recycle their waste, more attention to education and increasing awareness is therefore needed. Additionally, we should start by looking at the beginning of plastic production. The producers of plastic also need to take their responsibility for these issues. It is easy to point fingers at consumers, while it is very difficult to buy your groceries without any plastic packaging.
The webinar continued by looking into drivers and barriers that currently influence the needed transition. For example, when looking at policies and regulations, implementing a deposit on small plastic bottles or obligating a certain percentage of recycled resource in new products, could aid the transition. Access to financing is also very important due to low production costs of virgin plastics, in order for recycled product to be competitive. Additionally, culture and awareness are relevant, like awareness that plastic is also found in clothes and cosmetics. Ruth Mugge from the TU/d told us more about the positive and negative associations consumers have with recycled products. For example, consumers can have positive emotions due to the way the product makes them feel in an ethical sense, because of this feeling consumers are willing to pay more for a recycled product. However, some consumers also have negative associations like more presumed risks, less safety, and less attractive products.
The needed transition is therefore influenced by a lot of different elements. Because of this, this issue can be seen as a wicked problem. This means that you can look at it as a system with complex behaviour and interdependencies, without a single solution. The breaking the plastic wave report did an in-depth analysis into the effect of a system change approach to plastics. According to them, an integrated system change approach will have social, environmental, and economic benefits: 80% less leakage in the ocean, 25% reduction of GHG emissions, 55% less virgin plastic demand, and 700.000 jobs created.
The webinar then focussed on how Save Plastics, the municipality of Almere and the project Transform-CE with all its partners, will contribute to a part of the needed transition. Save Plastics’ mantra is ‘give plastic a new life’. We export and burn so much plastic waste, why not make new products for outdoors out of this waste? Think about bridges, benches, light poles and even houses. On the other hand, we import a lot of hardwood for these type of products (190 million kg/yr.), while recycled plastic is a good alternative to hardwood (lasts longer, no rotting or splintering). LCA data also shows that products from recycled plastic has a much lower impact on the environment and GHG-emissions than virgin plastics and hardwood.
The municipality of Almere is a municipality that is actively involved in creating concrete applications of the circular economy. They have a Upcycle centre where they combat waste by reusing materials and making them valuable again. This is done together on the recycling platform, with the entrepreneurs and the experience center. The City Lab is a "living lab" for the local use, application, processing and upgrading of municipal residual flows. Through innovative tenders they give entrepreneurs the space to get started with our residual flows.
These goals to further the transition towards sustainable use of plastics come together in the Transform-CE project. There is urgency for North West Europe to develop its own plastic recycling economy, this will reduce reliance on import markets, to repurpose and revalue existing single use plastics and to create demand for recycled products which will in turn divert valuable plastic away from landfill. To facilitate this, two pilot plants will be opened. The IEM plant (green plastic factory) in Almere, will focus on producing outdoor products with low values mixed plastics. The AM plant in Chester (UK), will focus on producing more high-end products through additively manufacturing (3D printing) from higher valued plastic waste. Both plants will therefore, provide scalability of technology, TRANSFORM-CE will develop and demonstrate circular economy (CE) business models and stimulate new secondary material markets across North West Europe for re-manufacturing, demonstrating that municipal waste plastic can be re-purposed and revalued.
Our future vision of responsible and sustainable plastics is local and circular. Due to the focus on scalability these production methods can be implemented worldwide. Therefore, the future of responsible and sustainable plastics is locally sorted waste and re produced products that are needed locally.
This webinar was created as part of the Transform-CE project, an Interreg NWE project with several partners throughout Europe. For example, the Manchester Metropolitan University, Save Plastics, the Municipality of Almere, the Technical University of Delft, and the University of Applied Science of Utrecht.
TRANSFORM-CE is supported by the Interreg North West Europe programme as part of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).