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Recycling is key factor in climate protection

Trade associations advocating development of functioning circular economy for plastics. Fraunhofer study: genuine circular economy is needed.

Companies from Germany’s plastics and recycling sector want to work together to establish a functioning circular economy for the material. Three trade associations, Plastics Europe Deutschland, the German Association of Plastics Converters (GKV) and VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery, together with two organisations from the waste disposal and recycling sector, BDE and the Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal (bvse), have issued a joint position paper announcing they are now pursuing the goal of benefiting even more from the benefits of plastics as a material. The announcement says that plastics already make a fundamental contribution to climate protection. And the more used plastics that are reused, the greater is the benefit to the material’s CO2 balance. This is confirmed by a recent study conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (UMSICHT).

Transformation to circular economy in full swing

As the associations emphasise in their paper, the transformation of the plastics manufacturing industry to a more circular economy is already in full swing. This is because the industry has long since realised that post-consumer plastic products are not waste, but a valuable raw material. And while in the public debate there are still arguments about how to deal with the growing mountains of packaging waste, the plastics industry is already creating the conditions needed to keep its products within an environmentally friendly loop.

As the signatories of the position paper point out, faster progress towards achieving a more circular economy also involves fulfilling several important prerequisites, adopting target-oriented measures and, last but not least, having the right framework conditions. Accordingly, it is particularly important to take the end of a product’s life into consideration when developing and manufacturing it. As the sector’s associations make clear, this refers specifically to the recyclability of the respective product. This is because only products that can be economically recycled using industrial processes can become part of a circular economy. In this context, they emphasise that the German packaging industry has already made considerable investments in recycling-friendly product design. After all, the industry is already aiming for 90 per cent material recovery from household packaging by 2025.

Politicians must now create the necessary framework conditions

If they are to realise this goal, however, the associations’ paper says companies need a clear commitment to new technologies at both the German and European levels, more openness towards innovation and a legal environment in which investments can be made safely and quickly. The five associations are appealing to the responsible decision-makers, as well as to environmental organisations, to put the change to a circular economy into practice.

The position paper contains detailed proposals on which areas need to be changed to provide the necessary impetus for the economy to become more circular. In addition to recycling-friendly product design, the signatories explicitly emphasise the handling of exports of used plastics. Stricter regulations for the export of plastic waste have already been in force in the EU since the beginning of 2021. Unsorted or contaminated plastic mixtures that cannot be easily recycled may no longer be traded internationally. In this way, the European Union wants to put a stop to the uncontrolled trade in plastic waste. From the point of view of insiders, such as the CEO of plastic packaging manufacturer PACCOR, Andreas Schütte, this initiative is welcome, but it has also been too long in coming. For example, PACCOR’s CEO has been criticising the export of such waste for a long time, labelling it ‘the biggest mistake ever made’. This is because used plastics in particular are far too valuable as a raw material; as he points out, they can be recycled, and this also actively contributes to climate protection.

In their position paper the industry’s associations are also advocating an EU-wide end to landfill of used plastics as well as an expansion of disposal and recycling infrastructures. The associations argue that it is essential to improve the market conditions for the use of recycled materials. This also means a clear political roadmap for the necessary legal framework. This includes, among other things, a clear legal definition of recyclates and the dismantling of legal hurdles in the use of products from the recycling process.

Recycling is active climate protection

The dimension of the contribution that recycling of recyclable materials can make to climate protection is illustrated by a recent study conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (UMSICHT) on behalf of the Alba Group. The scientists, who have been conducting research on the concrete benefits of loops for almost 15 years, summarise the results of their latest study briefly and succinctly: recycling is the key factor in achieving the EU’s climate goals! 

In their analysis, the Fraunhofer researchers point out that Alba alone avoided 3.5 million tonnes of climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions worldwide in 2020 by recycling 4.8 million tonnes of recyclable materials. The authors of the study say that this amount roughly corresponds to the emissions from five million round-trip flights between Frankfurt am Main and Majorca. In addition, recycling saves valuable raw materials for industry: compared to primary production, recycling conserved 28.8 million tonnes of resources like crude oil or iron ore in 2020. In their ‘resources SAVED by recycling’ study, the scientists predict that further savings could be achieved, for example by increasing the minimum levels for the use of recycled raw materials.

Circular economy the right way to go

According to Dr Markus Hiebel, head of the Sustainability and Participation Department at Fraunhofer UMSICHT, the greatest savings effects can be achieved if the entire value chain is consistently aligned in keeping with the loop principle. The expert says that products should be designed and handled from the beginning in such a way that they contain recycled raw materials and material recovery is possible at the end of their useful lives. He calls for an entirely new way of thinking to achieve a genuine circular economy. 

As one of the undisputed findings of the ‘resources SAVED by recycling’ study, Fraunhofer UMSICHT concludes that the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout Europe by at least 55 per cent by 2030 can only be achieved if there is no compromising in the use of recycled raw materials. To demonstrate this, they use plastics as an example: compared to primary plastics made from crude oil, the use of high-quality recycled plastics would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 per cent.