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The Next Economy
Roadmap for Europe’s Circular Plastics Transition May Be Full of Potholes

Industry experts say Plastics Europe’s roadmap for plastics to be ‘circular and net zero by 2050’ is weakened by a focus on doing business as usual, just better.

Earlier this month, government delegations gathered in Nairobi, Kenya for the latest round of negotiations to advance a Global Plastics Treaty. According to media reports, debate over whether the treaty should limit the amount of plastic being produced or just prioritise the management of plastics waste caused negotiations to stall.

The world is producing about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste each year and less than 10 percent of it is recycled, according to the UN Environment Programme. If this growth trend continues, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050. In Europe, plastics manufacturers looking for pragmatic ways to respond to this crisis recently united around a Plastics Transition’ roadmap.

The roadmap was created by Plastics Europe — an association of nearly 100 plastics manufacturers which between them produce over 90 percent of all polymers across Europe. Key priorities of the roadmap include making plastics more circular, helping to drive the plastics lifecycle to net zero, and fostering the sustainable use of plastic.

While the roadmap acknowledges that the collection, sorting and use of circular feedstocks must be significantly increased to reduce dependence on fossil-based ones, it cautions that the substitution of fossil-based plastics “will be gradual” given “expected constraints.”

Circular feedstocks include the availability of sorted plastic waste, sustainably sourced biomass, captured carbon and hydrogen. It goes on to state that substitution of fossil-based plastics is “projected to reach 65 percent by 2050 in an ambitious scenario.” In terms of decarbonization, the roadmap offers a pathway to reduce GHG emissions from the overall plastics system by 28 percent by 2030, with a 55 percent reduction by 2050.

While broadly welcoming the roadmap as a first step, some sustainability experts have questioned whether the level of ambition contained within it goes far enough. Claire Brady, co-host of the podcast “Wicked Problems: Climate Tech Conversations,” feels the plan misses a key opportunity.

“We’re at a critical juncture in addressing the plastic problem, and it demands innovative thinking beyond the status quo,” she told Sustainable Brands® (SB). “The roadmap outlines emissions reductions of only 55 percent by 2050; this falls far short of the ambitious targets set by initiatives like the Science-Based Targets initiative — which requires a 90 percent reduction in absolute emissions across all scopes by 2050.”

To abate the remaining emissions post-2050, the roadmap points to four “necessary levers” — energy-efficiency measures, use of renewable and low-carbon fuels, electrifying production processes, and utilizing carbon capture & storage (CCS). Brady says the reliance on CCS technologies as part of the strategy is “very concerning, as they are not yet proven at scale.”

Crucially, the roadmap is light on detail when it comes to addressing plastic production levels — preferring to focus on driving more circular waste-management solutions such as making easier-to-recycle plastics, scaling up chemical recycling and producing bio-based plastics.

This is perhaps not surprising. According to Plastics Europe, the European plastics industry is facing increasing global competition and gradually changing from an export to an import market. It warns that unless this trend is reversed, the sector will become increasingly dependent on imports of plastics or plastic products which may not meet EU sustainability standards.

Tracy Sutton, founder of sustainability consultancy Root, says that while the roadmap should have given more weight to reduction and reuse strategies, it’s an approach that would feel “too uncomfortable” for business models that traditionally have been designed to profit from disposability. Rather, she feels the plan’s overall message is about doing ‘business as usual’ — just better.

“The plastic sector will continue to be the biggest target for NGOs and environmental campaigners until they show intent to ’turn off the tap;’ however this unrealistic expectation will never meet the needs of trade body members,” she tells SB.

Libby Peake — head of resource policy at thinktank Green Alliance — says the roadmap relies too heavily on recycling and solutions that are currently unproven and/or energy-intensive, such as chemical recycling.

“It’s disappointing that the roadmap isn’t centered on the need to fundamentally reduce plastic use and that reuse seems to be viewed merely as an add-on to moderate the expected growth in plastic production and use. By 2050, if this vision is achieved, Europe will be consuming more plastic than it is now — not less,” she tells SB.

Brady echoes this view, maintaining that the ultimate aim should be for an overall reduction in plastics globally.

“Europe has an important role to play in leading that transition,” she says — asserting that reduction targets should have been featured in the plan, along with a more prominent role for reusability. “Embracing reuse could also open new revenue streams for plastic producers,” she adds.

Sutton says that while better chemical recycling and use of more bio-based materials can work well as part of a holistic strategy, plastic producers need to invest more time and energy into developing reuse and repair strategies.

Asked how plastic producers can make these type of business models work for them, Sutton replies: “It’s not easy. It’s technically impossible to the extent that plastic use, collection and recycling degrades plastic; so, a business model that uses plastic in a value-adding way is difficult at scale.”

That said, she points out that plastics industries around the world could be facing future ‘stranded asset’ risks of overinvesting in infrastructure if regulation continues to demote single-use plastic in favor of reuse or repair.

“Lease-hire models for equipment reduce these risks somewhat. Business models that look to shift from selling products to leasing products and offering repair services as part of a service contract or subscription basis are a way to address this,” Sutton says.

What is clear, and the roadmap underlines this point, is that the speed and extent to which any plastics system transitions to circularity and net zero relies very much on collaboration — supported by an enabling regulatory environment. On a practical level, Peake says industries and governments will need to work together to understand how to fundamentally change businesses and the economy to reduce material use and its impacts.

“A plastics roadmap on its own will never lead to a sustainable economy,” Peake asserts. “The only way we’ll ever address the joint climate and environmental emergency, both of which are driven by resource use, is if we aim for reductions and improvements in the use of all materials.”