Life in Plastic– is it fantastic?

Implementing Circular Practices on a Regional Level: The Plastic Waste sector

The importance of a shift to a circular economy

According to climate research, the world is set to exhaust resources amounting to the equivalent of three planet Earths within the next 30 years (Climate KIC). 

To this end, the implementation of a circular economy is vital in order to slow this progression: it has the potential to construct an environment consisting of more economic opportunities, as well as protect the saving of materials used by industries, and yet simultaneously create additional value from products and services. 

Particularly, after the beginning of the pandemic, a circular economy holds the capacity to speed up recovery plans and additionally mend the key growth areas in the field of sustainability. However, in order to successfully continue the circular transition to solidify it as a commonplace practice and fully reap all of its benefits, the cooperation of as many regions in as many countries within the EU is vital.

In 2021, the European Commission demanded additional measures to be added to the Circular Economy Action Plan, which aims to attain a fully circular, carbon-neutral, and environmentally sustainable economy by the year 2050 (European Parliament). Consequently, a package of measures was released in March 2022 to accelerate this shift towards a circular economy— these include for instance advancing sustainable products, empowering consumers, and developing new sustainable strategies. Regions that actively adopt circular economy practices are in turn granted the ability to receive funding from a variety of financial recovery instrument plans made available by the EU, including for instance “Next Generation EU”, the European Green Deal Investment Plan, InvestEU and additionally the funds feeding unto the Circular Economy Action Plan

Furthermore, to the end of embracing new circular solutions being brought to market, the European Regional Development Fund aims to supplement existing private innovation funding, like the Interregional Innovation Investments (I3), among others (European Parliament). 

Overall, the development of the European circular transition looks prosperous for the upcoming years, with the political and economic support from the EU and its member states. However, with the importance of local circular policies in order to foster the advancement of national and regional strategies in mind, it is vital to hone in on the individual role that regions play in this shift. For example, Figure 1 demonstrates a circular economy transition approach within a Slovenian system, with the connections between programmes clearly visible.

Figure 1: Deep Demonstration – Integrated Portfolio Approach (Climate KIC). 

This figure illustrates the complexity of the numerous systems that are intertwined to the end of achieving circular solutions purely at a regional scale.

To better understand the root of these practices, it is therefore necessary to dissect the meticulous planning that must go into individual sectors. This article will focus specifically on the circular transition process within the plastic waste sector. 

The plastic waste sector 

The plastic sector is a vital industry to analyze in terms of its circularity and long-term impact, seeing as plastic is an all-around widely used material in a long list of products and commodities. For a long time, its versatility, innate strength and durability has made it a principal element to turn to in the advancement of food and water safety, microelectronics, transportation developments, and additionally in health care and public safety (Klemes et al. 2020). 

While many may first think of plastic packaging as the main aspect encompassed in plastic waste, plastics have additionally been extensively used in the construction and electronics sector, particularly in personal use devices and power generation and transmission on a larger scale. Nonetheless, the hygienic, flexible, and lightweight characteristics of plastic does implicate its ranking as the most used material in packaging worldwide— from trays and bottles to containers and vending packaging, as well as their single use in health care for medical tools (Chen et al. 2020). 

This makes plastic different from other materials: their predominant advantage of cheap production simultaneously constitutes the main problem of its popular single-use (Klemes et al. 2020). As a result, through its extensive and valuable use in such a wide reach of sectors, the disposal of plastics is not being handled intentionally enough. Generally, they wind up in landfills or even dispersed throughout the environment, heavily contributing to ocean pollution, among numerous other examples. 

Figure 2 for instance illustrates the amount of plastic waste created per capita in the EU, where the issue becomes apparent as the majority of countries hold a steady level of over 30kg of waste being produced per person annually. 

Figure 2: Plastic packaging waste produced in EU countries per person in 2015. (Statista).

These figures have made a significant impact over time: studies have found that around 10 megatonnes of macro and microplastics are discharged out into the environment annually, and additionally, that the plastic visible at the surface of bodies of water only amounts to 1% of all existing plastic that has sunk to the ocean floor (Woodall et al. 2014). 

As can be seen in Figure 3, it is the missing pathway in the use cycle of plastic that leads to its inevitable appearance in the ocean. 

Of these plastics, the different groups can be further categorized into the differing ways in which they impact the environment and society: the effects can be economic, physical, and chemical depending on the material.  

Figure 3: Plastic valuation model (Klemeš et al.).

Existing approaches for the circular transition in the plastic waste sector

Overall, the purpose of the circular economy is to supply well-performing services and products while simultaneously prioritizing resource-use facets. In an assessment carried out by the European Environment Agency (EEA), it is stated that the focus on preventing single-use plastics and non-recyclable plastic goods should take top priority, as these are the most environmentally adverse types of plastics (EMIS).  

In recent years, the EU has taken substantial steps in the direction of waste management and prevention. For instance, the European Commission launched its 2018 European strategy for plastics in a circular economy  with the goal of promoting circular business models and hereby reducing the effect of plastic waste on the environment. Furthermore, the Single Use Plastics Directive introduced in 2019 outlines the harms of these specific types of plastics and reports that member states partaking in the initiative have agreed to aim for a 90% plastic bottle recycling rate target by the end of the decade (Council of the EU, 2019). 

However, there have been actions underway operating separately from these collective action plans. For years, a number of countries have been installing concrete efforts to establish the circular economy in their respective areas, in a variety of sectors, thereby providing useful examples for others to follow: the EEA assessment reported that there are overall 173 waste prevention proposals for implementation in EU countries. 

Greece, for instance, has implemented a method by the name of ‘Pay-As-You-Throw’, or PAYT. The aim of this plan is to devise a tax incentive for citizens in order to minimize the waste they generate— it was ultimately found that the program successfully averted 25% of waste from landfills, and ensured that 56% of packaging waste and nearly 5kg of waste electrical and electronic equipment was recycled per capita. 

The Wallonia region in Belgium has also implemented similar circular initiatives: It revised its regional waste strategy in a manner that would bind together waste, resources, and personal waste stream actions (European Committee of the Regions, 2020). 

Additionally, regional projects such as FRONTSH1P are actively underway. This EU-funded initiative is centered in the Polish region of Łódzkie and aims to advance the green transition of the region by focusing on four main sectors: wood packaging, food and feed, water and nutrients, and plastic and rubber waste. By making the solutions to each portion of the project highly replicable, these mechanisms are intended to be employed in a number of other specific regions (European Association of Development Agencies). 

To this end, the FRONTSH1P project is actively taking synergic action on all relevant social, production and waste activities within this sector. The social aspect, for instance, aims for social activities dedicated specifically to people living in social houses, which is meant to directly lead to the learning of new skills in order to repair products without wasting material or changing devices, and for the replacement of parts for individuals with a low-income background. Additionally, new processes are to be implemented in order to decarbonize the vital polymer production in plastic through the project’s collaboration among the consortium partners (FRONTSH1P: CSS4). 

General capacity-building  

It is important to note, however, the general actions that are required in order to effectively reach the proposed goals towards a circular transition on a large scale. This goes beyond the plans explicitly targeting local officials and lawmakers. A vital factor in the creation of a concrete CE framework is therefore the meticulous inclusion of citizens. By raising their awareness of the concept and importance of the circular economy, they can better understand the positive effects that they could personally generate. As a result, the long-term backing of circular product and service markets can aid establish a [solid] CE framework, which can then moreover convert into local and regional job creation by facilitating secondary raw material markets (European Committee of the Regions). 

A further action that can be taken is the employment of capacity-building efforts– these include for example training and advising to local and regional authorities (LRAs), companies, and individuals in order to make CE practices more commonplace within society. Thus, the European Skills Agenda, which outlines steps to be taken to aid societal development within a five-year plan, contains actions such as improving job pathways, vocational training and education, and sectoral skill cooperation. 
Finally, LRAs can actively contribute to the circular shift by taking on the role of promotion for the changes in production chains. By collaborating with local industries, they can aid in the design of more circular products and services. In Belgium, for example, there has been a certification scheme in progress that encourages the reuse of electronics in order to reassure consumers of their quality (European Committee of the Regions).

Social impact of regional efforts to a circular shift 

Major societal changes, regardless of how beneficial in the long-run, require dedicated time and intentional enforcement in order for the effects to take place. However, there are a number of roadblocks to be considered. 

An example that effectively illustrates the ways in which authorities must take public behavior into account is presented by the aforementioned PAYT program implemented in Greece: it was reported that the municipality expected a resistance to behavioral adjustments. In this particular case, it was anticipated that this resistance would come in the form of “parallel practices”, such as “illegal dumping, open burning, or waste tourism (disposing waste in another community)” (European Committee of the Regions). 

Hence, the employment of a circular economy strategy can be categorized into three different groups: 

  • The micro level focuses on products, companies and consumers
  • The meso level deals with the industrial aspects; and 
  • The macro level encompasses activities within a city, region, or country. 

A study found that in the push towards a circular transition, officers tend to merely implement issues in just two of these levels, with a tendency to exclude the meso level or a balanced combination of the remaining two (Padilla-Rivera et al., 2020). However, once the big picture is regarded in terms of the social aspects, a wide range of elements is added into the mix– Figure 4 below shows the variety of social components, categorized into the areas of labor practices, human rights, society, and product responsibility. 

Within the society group, for instance, it becomes clear that the employment of circular practices encompasses the collaboration of not only the responsible organizations and companies that explicitly commit to greener practices, but additionally groups committed to public policy, anti-corruption facets, and more. 

Figure 4: Thematic areas and aspects for social dimension within CE (Padilla-Rivera et al., 2020) 

Along with these social aspects in mind, it is important to note that there is a guiding foundation in EU law known as the waste hierarchy, illustrated below, which is in place to establish priority within waste management and prevention. The European Parliamentary Research Service found that although the focus on waste prevention generally correlates with higher costs associated with sorting, collecting, and recycling, items that place higher on the aforementioned waste hierarchy overall generate a positive economic effect: EU companies have the potential to see their costs cut by a net worth of 250€ to 465€ billion annually, which corresponds to approximately 20% of their material costs (EPRS). 

Higher positions on the waste hierarchy also generate jobs of higher quality employment opportunities, which correlates directly with a positive social impact in the long-run. 

Figure 5: A zero waste hierarchy for Europe (Zero Waste Europe). 

To better understand the interpretation of this waste hierarchy in place, it is vital to address the individual elements included within it. For instance, the prevention tier encompasses the necessary steps to address the aspects of missing measures and data on waste prevention, which includes the examination of goods’ design, production and consumption. Especially the last of these elements directly involves the general public, and furthermore involves social action from the side of companies and LRAs (EPRS). 

In the same vein, an aspect that involves both social aspects and the waste hierarchy is the challenges that are associated specifically with product lifetime management. Ensuring the increase in products’ lifetime is a vital step in the implementation of a circular economy: it has been found that, on average, ecodesign can save the average consumer around 330€ annually (specifically in Germany, defective products can cause consumers to carry costs of approximately 110€ a month; EPRS). Product lifetime management also faces an additional hurdle in the form of a lack of sufficient technical skills in the workforce, which can effectively be tackled through training and development measures. With this in mind, it can be drawn that a significant portion of the elements within the social sphere of the implementation of circular measures largely involves the employment of economic resources. 
Tying all of these ideas together, Padilla et al. found that the relevant practice to be implemented, the so-called sharing economy, involves three vital assets: the more efficient and volatile use of financial resources (economic), a more effective use of natural resources (environmental), and individuals’ stronger interactions with one another (social). To this end, the sharing economy ultimately serves in the support of essential related aims such as “community-building, economic empowerment, creative expression, and resource management” (Padilla et al., 2020).

Future Outlook

With all of these previously mentioned elements in mind, it becomes clear that while the shift to a circular economy can provide a wide range of benefits and opportunities, the road towards that complete transition is paved with a considerable amount of hindrances. 

As the breadth of the circular economy reaches outside the limits of pure waste prevention and waste management, the correct and careful employment of the sources at hand is vital. The circular economy encompasses the efficient use of natural resources, the boosting of secondary raw material use, and the diminishment of reliance on imported goods. As director of Circular Change Ladeja Godina Košir has explained, “Templates and plans on how to change cities to become circular are a linear way of thinking.” Hence, “we […] have to dare to see how each city is unique to develop circular economy models for each city” (Climate KIC). The roundup of circular actions is vital: from obtaining access to strategic resources to expanding the use of secondary raw materials and minimizing reliance on imports– at stake is the environmental imprint and competitiveness of Europe’s economy, and in the long-run, EU citizens’ living standard (EPRS).

Sources

Armstrong, M., & Richter, F. (2018, January 5). Infographic: Each EU citizen creates 31kg of plastic waste per year. Statista Infographics. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/chart/12425/eu-plastic-waste/ 

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European Commission. (2019, July 2). Single-use plastics. Environment. Retrieved July 2022, from https://environment.ec.europa.eu/topics/plastics/single-use-plastics_en 

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EMIS. What are European countries doing to tackle plastic waste? EMIS. (2019, June 3). Retrieved July 2022, from https://emis.vito.be/en/artikel/what-are-european-countries-doing-tackle-plastic-waste 

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Klemeš, J. J., Fan, Y. V., & Jiang, P. (2020). Plastics: Friends or foes? the circularity and plastic waste footprint. Energy Sources, Part A: Recovery, Utilization, and Environmental Effects, 43(13), 1549–1565. https://doi.org/10.1080/15567036.2020.1801906 

Padilla-Rivera, A., Russo-Garrido, S., & Merveille, N. (2020). Addressing the social aspects of a circular economy: A systematic literature review. Sustainability, 12(19), 7912. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12197912 

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