04 Apr 2022

Written by

Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director at Zero Waste Europe

Unpacking the findings of the “ReShaping Plastics” study

Consumption & Production

Initial disclaimer on the “ReShaping Plastics” study

I participated in the Steering Committee (SC) of the “ReShaping Plastics” study, which was launched on 4 April 2022, and here are some of my thoughts going forward.

First off, I would like to clarify that, as stated in the report, participating in the Steering Committee doesn’t mean that neither the individuals nor the organisations they work for are endorsing each and every point in the study. The SC provided strategic guidance and direction in the project, and the result is the overall compromise of the exercise.

Having said that, I think the study is really a wake-up call for all stakeholders about the scale of the challenge ahead of us. With plastic pollution continuing to abound, the “ReShaping Plastics” study is a key framing exercise to bring circularity and decarbonisation into the plastics agenda.

On the framing

Enlarging the current “plastic pollution” framing is indeed necessary, and the two angles brought in by the study are the right ones. However, in order to properly address the future of plastic in Europe, I believe a third angle is missing: that is, how to ensure that plastic production, use, recirculation, and disposal are safe. 

By not including the chemicals angle in the study, there is the implicit assumption that all is fine, when in reality there is plenty of scientific evidence proving that’s not the case. I’m not referring only to the well-known issues related to some polymers such as PVC or additives such as phthalates – there is evidence that, even with PET recycling, we are recirculating toxics. I.e., the more we recycle PET, the better for the climate, resource circulation and plastic pollution – but what about the health impacts of recirculating toxics? The “ReShaping Plastics” study does not factor this. I’m aware of the incredible complexity of adding the chemicals angle to this modeling; and yet, this is a key topic going forward – and I warn that the industry and policy-making actors really struggle to include toxics in their future scenarios.

Another important point to address – and the study is clear about this shortcoming – is the big data gap in the analysis. A 43% data gap is far from negligible, and the study is clear about this challenge when it comes to future planning.

On the content

The “ReShaping Plastics” study is clear about the need to speed up the transition if we want to achieve circularity and carbon neutrality for this material. In other words, policy-making as usual won’t deliver the scale of change needed. This should be a wake-up call for the European and national institutions in order to redouble the ambition in the upcoming legislation. 

For what concerns the industry, one could argue that this study makes the current European Strategy for Plastics obsolete and challenges the foundations of the Circular Plastics Alliance (CPA): “government and company actions are not on track to deliver 10 Mt of recycled plastic production by 2025 commitment made by the CPA…”. If the end goals are circularity and carbon-neutrality, then the current objectives, strategy, and performance of the CPA are not fit for purpose and should be redesigned or replaced. Its current focus on recycling is clearly insufficient.

The study is right when it mentions that “There is no “silver bullet” solution to significantly reduce waste disposal and GHG emissions. Upstream and downstream solutions are complementary and are most effective when deployed together. We need to simultaneously reduce, redesign/substitute, reuse, recycle, and dispose of plastic – but not in the same manner. For instance, reduction and substitution via reuse systems will need to go from 0 to around 10 Mt, whereas incineration will need to be reduced from current 11 Mt to 2 Mt. Therefore, not all the solutions play the same role.

The study rightly points out that “the next three to five years are a critical window for action”. Yet, I’m worried that this is a statement that could be misinterpreted, and could lead to wrong actions and investments. Yes, action is needed (and needed fast), but not all the solutions proposed should be treated equally, for they have different risks attached. The study states that “Circularity levers are the fastest, most affordable, most effective, and most reliable method of reducing GHGs and waste disposal in the system available to stakeholders today, and most of their benefits can be achieved before 2040.

In my opinion, a way to look at the actions – that is alternative to breaking them up between upstream and downstream – is to analyse them in terms of risk/feasibility and cost. As such, the solutions of the report can be broken into:

  1. Solutions with a track record, relatively easy/fast to implement and reasonable pricing such as shifting to phasing out unrecyclable and/or toxic plastics, reusable packaging, or optimizing separate collection and mechanical recycling.
  2. Less mature, slower to implement, riskier, and more expensive solutions such as chemical recycling, carbon capture and storage, or green hydrogen.

For solutions of the first kind, regulatory frameworks and investment can and should be deployed right away. For the solutions of the second kind, which are still at experimental stage, it is important to invest in research to get them to work as soon as possible, but only roll them out at scale once proof of concept is provided. For instance, the chemical industry is currently targeting pyrolysis technology as the dominant pathway for “chemical recycling”; yet, it is yet to be proven whether such technology can deliver enough yields at an acceptable environmental and economic cost. For as long as this is not proven, regulations of financial support dedicated to scale it up would be distractive and ruinous.

This point is particularly important because the plastic industry is investing 2,6 billion in end of pipe technologies in the next years when reduction and reuse don’t manage to raise even one tenth of that amount. There seems to be a lot more interest from both industry and policy-makers in developing the already well-developed legislation on waste management, but there is very little action to legislate/finance on upstream measures such as reusable packaging or reducing resource use. Comparing the maturity and feasibility of both options, it is clear that what lacks legislative and financial support are the most proven, easier to implement and cost-effective actions. This should be reversed.

All in all, and while strongly urging us all to take into account the points raised above, I find “ReShaping Plastics” an instrumental piece to frame and inform the conversation going forward. Yet, I dare to foresee that agreeing on the HOW will be much more difficult than on the WHAT – let’s hope for the best!