Plastic: A victim of its own success?

The success of plastic is undisputed, at the same time its downsides such as waste disposal are the subject of much debate. Prof. Dr. Helmut Maurer and Patricia Vangheluwe, PhD, two experts in the field of plastics, discuss their ideas on how to tackle this global challenge.

Plastics touch nearly every area of our lives, bringing improvements, convenience and cost savings. These highly versatile materials have helped shape our world for over 100 years and new plastics are being developed all the time. But as plastic waste builds up in landfills and the oceans, its disposal is now a major environmental issue. Patricia Vangheluwe, PhD, from PlasticsEurope and Professor Dr. Helmut Maurer from the European Commission’s Waste Management and Recycling Unit discuss the dilemma this poses.

Creating Chemistry: For some the word “plastic” has become synonymous with a disposable culture, yet the material makes a huge contribution to our daily lives. Do you think plastic has an image problem?

Helmut Maurer: Plastic is a victim of its versatility and great success. What do we not make out of plastics? We even have it in our bodies as part of medical applications. There is no reason to demonize plastic. The trouble from my point of view is that it is widely overused. We market it and produce as much as we possibly can, and then the instruments are not in place to properly handle it. Planned obsolescence has become an industrial principle.

Patricia Vangheluwe: I agree that plastic has an image problem and we need to change this. For instance, we have to do a lot more to use post-consumer plastic waste as a resource and make people understand that plastic is a valuable material. As a society we have to tackle that issue, because plastic offers such tremendous opportunities to address societal challenges and it is one of the most resource-efficient materials around.

Patricia Vangheluwe, PhD, Director of Consumer and Environmental Affairs at PlasticsEurope

Rising consumption has led to problems as countries struggle to deal with a vast amount of plastic material being thrown away. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), between 22% and 43% of plastic waste ends up in landfills world­ wide rather than being reused or recycled. How can we tackle this problem?

Maurer: In developing countries plastic is practically always thrown away, either in landfill or in nature. Even in Europe around 50% goes to landfill. It is clear we have to act urgently. What we need is a global landfill ban. And we have millions of tons of plastic broken down to microparticles floating around in our oceans – an influx of another 10 to 15 million tons reaches the marine environment every year. We need to talk globally – the oceans don’t have borders. We also need to work on the chemistry of the material. You have to make products with materials that are designed to be recycled and avoid toxic additives that make recycling difficult. That is a big challenge for the plastic industry.

Vangheluwe: I share Helmut’s view that we need to encourage a landfill ban globally. When it comes to post-consumer waste, the whole of the value chain – from plastics producing companies to product producers, retailers and end-consumers – can do better. We have to design products for resource efficiency, which is not quite the same as design for recycling, and in doing so we have to take into account what will happen with the product at the end of its life. Producer companies have always taken waste very seriously, because it makes economic sense to use resources within pro- duction in the most efficient way. All the product and application development they are doing is to make products lighter, more durable, more functional. This helps save resources, which has similar positive effects as preventing waste.

“We have to do a lot more to use postconsumer plastic waste as a resource and make people understand that plastic is a valuable material.”

Patricia Vangheluwe, PhD, Director of Consumer and Environmental Affairs at PlasticsEurope

It is often cheaper for industrially advanced countries to send plastic thousands of miles by ship than to reprocess it where it was used. Shouldn’t recycling be made more economically desirable closer to home?

Vangheluwe: Quality recyclates should be considered as products, the same as any other product on the market. In a free market products can be traded; supply and demand dictate the market. But it is good that recyclers work hand-in-hand with the value chain close to home to extract more value from these recycled materials. Plastics producers can help recyclers because they have knowledge of the material itself. This information can help determine which markets those products can serve and how to do the quality control.

Maurer: As Patricia rightly says, producers know their material best and for recyclers it is extremely important to have that same knowledge. There’s still a lot to do to facilitate this knowledge transfer. In order to enhance domestic plastic recycling, there are plenty of things we can do. First, we can set targets to define a goal to recycle a lot more. Then we also have to facilitate markets. We can set up end-of-waste criteria and create a market pull for high-quality recycling.

Prof. Dr. Helmut Maurer, Principal Lawyer at the European Commission’s Waste Management and Recycling Unit, Directorate General for the Environment

Burning waste plastic to generate energy is an industry in itself. As worldwide plastic recycling rates are low many people argue it is an essential part of the energy mix. Do you see a long­term role for energy­from­waste schemes using plastic?

Maurer: Generally speaking, burning plastic should be avoided because in burning we lose the process energy necessary for making the plastic. Burning will slow down as recycling becomes more attractive. But the reality is, much post-consumer plastic is unsuitable for recycling – partly because of hazardous materials put in by producers, like certain flame retardants or phthalates. But we are talking about a moving target because the plastic of tomorrow – the better recyclable plastic – will naturally lead to more recycling. Another important argument against burning plastic is climate change. Until 2050 we have a maximum budget of 1,000 billion tons of CO2 emissions to respect if we want to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celcius. But already known global fossil fuel reserves equal 2,900 billion tons of CO2. If we had to leave them in the ground, this would force us to do more recycling.

Vangheluwe: Energy recovery is sometimes the most eco-efficient solution, especially for mixed waste. When this is the case from a life cycle perspective, energy recovery makes sense as one of the waste management options. Hopefully one day the innovation will be there that allows us to break down mixed plastics that cannot be sustainably recycled into raw materials which can be reused to produce plastics in an economical and environmentally sustainable way – that would be a breakthrough that would help to increase recycling of plastics.

“Even in Europe around 50% of the plastic goes to landfill. It is clear we have to act urgently. What we need is a global landfill ban.”

Prof. Dr. Helmut Maurer, Principal Lawyer at the European Commission’s Waste Management and Recycling Unit, Directorate General for the Environment  

How do you see plastic products developing over the next 50 years? Where do you see the biggest opportunities and challenges?

Maurer: I would like to see plastic getting rid of its negative image as an omnipresent, cheap and easily breakable material. But I would warn about looking to the way forward as depending only on more technology. We have to face the fact that an annual 5% global growth rate in plastic production would mean doubling production every 14 years, so that by 2043 we would be producing 1,200 million tons a year. This would obviously not be sustainable. Already today, plastic in the marine environment is totally out of hand. I think we are producing too many things that aren’t really needed.

Vangheluwe: We will see continuous developments in intelligent and barrier packaging, medical applications such as prosthetics, and even lighter composite materials that can be used in structural applications for the automotive and construction markets. Bio-based plastics will continue to be developed and I believe we will have mixed plastic that will be used as a raw material stream for plastics in the coming 50 years. We will also have increasing use of CO2 as a feedstock and as such closing the full carbon cycle. It’s already taking place now to produce polyurethanes. If plastic is to continue to deliver all the benefits it has delivered so far, we will all have to continue working on the challenge of waste management, litter and plastics in the environment. I’ve always believed that technology and innovation can make a difference. With ongoing education on proper waste management and innovation, plastics will continue to provide solutions to many of the societal challenges ahead of us.

Patricia Vangheluwe, PhD, is director of consumer and environmental affairs at PlasticsEurope, the European association of plastics manufacturers. She has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Leuven, Belgium, and did a post-doctorate at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, as well as a Master in Controllership at the Belgian Vlerick Management School. Previously she worked at LyondellBasell and predecessor companies in marketing, strategy, communications and human resources.

Professor Dr. Helmut Maurer is principal lawyer at the European Commission’s Waste Management and Recycling Unit in the Directorate General for the Environment. He is responsible for questions regarding a future strategy for plastic waste, circular economy and coherence of waste legislation. He completed his doctorate in comparative employment law at Trier University, Germany, and has held two tenures at different universities.*
* Note: The views expressed here are Prof. Dr. Maurer’s personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission.