Another episode of LOOPS has ended, but what has left behind is an open door to the world of innovation, and the changes it can truly bring to the planet we are living in.

The topic of this discussion addresses one of the largest challenges of our current time: the pollution and waste of plastics, a composite material whose use is so deeply ingrained in our habits, that makes it hard to break with it and, for someone, almost impossible to believe. However, two H2020 projects have found a way out – more than one to be precise – and today I’m going to show you how.

On Wednesday 17th of March, we streamed live the third episode of Loops, our live webinar series intended to shed light on the innovation and research produced by the H2020-funded projects in the field of Circular Economy. For the occasion, we invited on stage the coordinators of two projects that, however different they are, they share the same goal: taking down plastic waste and pollution.

Let’s look at them a little bit closer:

PlastiCircle: Our speaker César Aliaga, Head of the Unit of Recycling system and waste valorisation in the Spanish Packaging Institute ITENE, brought us on a journey into the heart of the project. Currently, 27.1 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated in the EU every year. Out of all this waste, only 31.1% is recycled, while the remaining part is destined to be incinerated or sent to landfills. Not only does it represent a significant loss of valuable resources to our economy, but it also causes harmful consequences on the environment and human wellbeing, in light of its slow decomposition across time.

Against this background, PlastiCircle provides a fresh look at this issue, by specifically focusing on only one component of the plastic waste, the largest one: the plastic packaging. More in detail, the solutions they provide aim at addressing one particular issue linked to the introduction of new applications into the market that are still perceived as being of lower quality compared to their virgin counterpart due to an inaccurate recycling process that prevents their valorisation. What PlastiCircle wants to do is developing new technologies at every stage of the plastic packaging pathway, driven by the aim of devising new value-added applications that turn out to be worthy competitors of their counterparts. What does that translate into? Smart containers for the collection process, route optimization, new technology for better separation of plastic polymers and optimization of the whole recycling process. The cherry on top? The reintroduction of plastics into the value chain directly to consumers in the form of newly developed applications.

CLAIM: Dr. George Triantaphyllidis, Manager of the project, together with Dr. George Triantafyllou, Research Director in the Hellenic Centre of Marine Research in Greece, explain very straightforwardly the ambitious objective that gives shape to the whole CLAIM project: devising innovative technologies to remove the amount of marine plastic pollution in the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea. Sounds hard to believe, doesn’it?

Marine litter is mainly made of macro- and micro- plastics, and their concentration in the ocean represents a major threat for marine ecosystem. Over 80% of marine litter is estimated to originate from land-based sources. CLAIM is directing its effort to the provision of practical tools for the efficient management of the marine ecosystems, by developing and demonstrating cost-efficient cleaning methods for visible and invisible litter to be placed in the major sources of plastic accumulation: rivers and wastewater treatment plants to prevent litter from entering a larger body of water and consequently causing harmful damages to the marine ecosystem. That’s not all. Among the main objectives stands out the one aimed at devising new technology for an operational forecasting of the impacts of marine plastic litter on ecosystem services. By using an ecosystem service angle – the fishing industry, for instance – it is possible to identify areas where the human wellbeing is most affected, and then exploit the greatest potential of the devised technology to tackle marine pollution in those specific places.

You might be wondering: where does this litter end up, once picked up from the oceans? Countries may lack the facilities and technology to sort it out. And that’s when CLAIM strikes again. What they propose is collecting the litter and devising innovative processes that allow its recyclability, or reuse in specific devices able to treat marine litter in high temperature and transform it into compostable reusable gas, used for multiple purposes. This way, the litter is gone, the loop is closed and waste turns into value. The very beginning of a new cycle.

Some food for thought… let’s think about it together!

Microplastics exist everywhere but nowhere. We cannot look at it, but we can choose to see it. For CLAIM project, rising awareness and directing people’s perceptions towards the value of the ecosystem services are particularly difficult to measure. Dr. George Triantaphyllidis emphasised that evaluating the effects of their innovation on people’s behaviour is certainly on their agenda, but such effort cannot be beneficial if not accompanied by people’s engagement and sense of responsibility. Currently all the plastics that is dropped in the oceans, ends up in our stomach through marine wildlife that’s part of our diet. If there’s a way to put a halt to plastic pollution, all these consequences could be avoided.

“That’s why we want to identify the areas in which the streams will be accumulated, and move farms elsewhere, where there’s no such problem. Every year tons and tons of plastics end up in our seas from mismanagement of waste in lands, so it would be a very good start if we put a halt to input sources and focus on cleaning the remaining amount present in the sea”. — Dr. George Triantaphyllidis

The recycling of plastics itself carries with it a series of challenges that require immediate action from different actors on stage. They can only be fully addressed if municipalities, companies and citizens truly commit to changing their current practices to embrace new ones, new habits, new forms of doing things. This prompts an immediate discussion on what could be the best way to encourage citizens to better separate plastic waste and motivate companies to sort, recycle and reintroduce it in the loop. As Dr. César Aliaga remarked, the European legislation is already working on that direction. Companies are already forced to make their plastic packaging recyclable, compostable and reusable by 2030. The economic incentive is very important: companies need to make money out of plastic recycling. Hence, it is necessary to invest in the value of the final applications. The higher it will be, the more likely will be companies’ commitment to being part of the game. PlastiCircle has already tested this direction with consumers. They are given an economic award, if they prove to follow the right behaviour. If they do not, well… it goes the other way! (we hope they do)

What to expect at the EU level?

The European Union is providing a great contribution to boost change. Everything is moving fast and EU legislation seems to catch up with such fast-paced environment. One suggestion came from Dr. Aliaga, who would like to see the price of landifilling go up, in order to deter companies from even pondering the option of going for it. The more expensive it is, the more profitable is for companies to valorise plastics. Dr. Triantaphyllidis emphasised the importance of promoting any initiative that could offer innovative ideas if is given the tools to face a demanding financial environment. Dr. Triantafyllou remarked that this action does not only concern the environment, but also the wellbeing of people. Europe is trying to find substitutes for the use of plastics, even though the benefits of plastics in terms of economic expense and usability are quite known to everyone. Alternatives might be more expensive but eventually, what weighs more on the scale?

Thank you all for watching! See you very soon in another new LOOP!