Zero plastic waste

Today’s plastic consumption

To reach the goal of zero plastic waste, first it’s important to understand today’s plastic consumption. In today’s world, plastic consumption is still rising, but plastic recycling isn’t still well organized. Plastic is ubiquitous in our society: almost every object in our daily lives contains it, from our clothes and vehicles to the packaging of the products we consume.


More than 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, and many organisations predict that this figure will double by 2040.


However, from the extraction of the raw materials needed for its manufacture to its end-of-life, plastic has a considerable impact on biodiversity, the climate, health and human rights. For example, yvery year, it is estimated that at least 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, with irreversible impacts on marine biodiversity. By now, the cost of environmental damage caused by plastic pollution in marine ecosystems is estimated at 13 billion US dollars.


The world needs to find a solution to that problem, in order to reach the goal of zero plastic waste by 2050.


Journey to Zero Plastic Waste in Europe

In its combat against plastic waste, Europe plays an important part. The European Commission issued guidelines intended to curb the use of plastics. The most ambitious one is the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). This requires high recycling percentages, high amounts of recyclate in new products and reuse of plastic articles.


Moreover, this guideline puts a maximum to the number of plastic bags that a European consumer is allowed to use daily. Some countries, like the Netherlands, have even formulated stricter goals: a fully circular economy. Meaning that almost all paper, plastics and textiles should in due course be processed for reuse. And that the resource should be biobased.


Different regions, especially ones in the EU, are already banning single-use plastics. These include plastic cups, plastic straws, excessive packaging and so on. Iceland, for instance, has banned the box that is used for packaging toothpaste. Many other regions have also similarly banned excessive packaging. This means manufacturers need to adapt to the market in these regions.


Formulating policies is easy, executing policies is much harder. Plastics, according to WUR, are cheap. Most recycled plastics are more expensive than virgin plastics. And plastics are light, important in transport. Plastics also protect effectively against dirt and decay. And they are lighter than competing materials like glass. All these factors mean that plastics have become part of our food safety. And plastics often come in very handy, particularly in once-through use.


Zero Plastic Waste in Italy

The European Union recycles only 32.5% of plastics, and even in Italy, the evidence speaks for itself: the Plastic Free criterion is applied to 92% in capitals and 49% in municipalities.


From the 1960s to the present, plastic production has increased and continues to grow steadily. Reducing the environmental impact of plastic production and consumption is part of the commitment of the European Union, which, in relation to the plastics industry, envisages concrete actions in the realization of packaging that lasts longer and is reusable and recyclable, so as to achieve full recyclability of all packaging in the Union by 2030. Achieving the EU goal requires the commitment of each individual country.


According to some data collected by WWF, Italy produces about 4 million tons of waste, 80% of which comes from packaging. To address this evidence, on Jan. 14, 2022, regulations against single-use plastics officially came into force in Italy as well – implementing the European Community’s Single Use Plastics (SUP) Directive 2019/904 – and banning the sale of cutlery, plates, straws and other products made of even “oxo-degradable” plastic (material that can decompose in the presence of oxygen).


Towards a circular economy

The ultimate goal is to achieve Circular Economy: towards a society with zero plastic waste, that only circulates recycled or biobased plastics. But there are many varieties of plastics around, that all require a different approach.


  • PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is quite recyclable. But PET is being used in many more applications than just bottles. We need to redesign PET plates for recycling; and build more recycling capacity.

  • Polyethylene (PE) can best be processed by incineration. Here, the resource is the limiting factor. It is quite feasible to produce PE from sugar cane for instance, but at the moment this is too expensive. A financial incentive should facilitate this pathway.

  • We can substitute polypropylene (PP) with polylactic acid (PLA). But this plastic doesn’t fit into the present recycling system. This will only change if much more PLA would be produced.


Recycling plastics has a major problem: the variety of plastics. Proper recycling is only feasible on the basis of a uniform resource. If plastic waste remains as varied as it is now, then only rough remedies like pyrolysis will be successful. Plastic industry’s favourite solution. But this would effectively keep alive a once-through system. Also meaning: fossil resources for plastics production, as there would not be enough biobased resources for such a system.


Conclusion

Sustainability comes at a price, and often, it is not convenient or easily attainable. Zero waste packaging can neither completely replace the convenience of plastic packaging, nor is it cheap. But it is a necessity considering the impact that plastic packaging has on the planet.


Do you want to find out more information on circular economy and its themes? Visit Tondo’s blog! And if you are interested into finding a community of companies and organizations that focus on circular economy and share experiences, knowledges and much more, join our communities of companies!

Emma Salioni

WIth a degree in Digital content management for media, enterprises and cultural heritage, Emma Salioni has always had a strong interest in sustainability and circularity. After a period of time spent workin in The Netherlands, she started working with Tondo managing social media and communication, as well as supporting the organization of hackathons and events.