The circular economy of plastics: In search of sustainable packaging

Last June, the Council of Ministers approved the Spanish Circular Economy Strategy (SCES), in addition to the draft of the Waste and Contaminated Soil Law, whose main objective is to offer an effective solution to the growing volume of waste and reduce the use of plastics. This is in response to European Directives UE218/851 on waste and UE219/904 on single-use plastics, which are aimed at meeting the objectives of the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan.

Key challenges to achieve the Circular Economy of plastics

If already in 2015 a package of measures on circular economy was published that identified plastics as one of the priority areas to develop, in 2018 the “European strategy for plastics in a circular economy” was published, focused on boosting the recovery of plastics to be able to reintroduce them into the production process in a cost-effective way. At the beginning of 2020, the European Commission presented the new action plan under the European Green Deal, a roadmap with different actions that should lead Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

The European strategy presents three main challenges for achieving the circular plastics economy:

  • Incorporate 10 million tonnes of recycled plastic in Europe by 2025
  • Make all plastic packaging on the European market reusable or recyclable by 2030
  • Achieve complete disposal of plastic waste left behind in nature.

Although there are currently very valuable initiatives to encourage innovation and cooperation between companies and sectors such as the Circular Plastics Alliance. It’s the power of society whose demands on large corporations can precipitate the end of plastic as we know it, as it has now gained a negative image, especially among younger generations.

Solutions for the sustainability of plastics

The European Commission has decided to revise directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste in order to reduce and prevent the amount of plastic packaging waste generated on the European market. The measures focus on:

  • Reduce over-packaging and packaging waste
  • Encourage design for reuse and recyclability of packaging
  • Reduce the complexity of the material used

Digital watermarks

A study conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation under the New Plastics Economy program and sponsored by the European Brands Association (EBA), highlighted the advantages of replacing plastic packaging with digital watermarks. These are imperceptible codes, the size of a postage stamp, that cover the surface of consumer goods packaging.

They can contain various attributes of information, including the type of plastic used and the composition of multi-layered objects. Once of the packaging input the waste sorting plant, the objective is to detect and decode the digital watermark, which in turn can classify and derive it to the corresponding flows based on the transferred attributes. This would improve the efficiency and accuracy of sorting flows and thus the quality of recycling, bringing benefits to the entire packaging value chain.

Sustainable packaging and single-use plastics

By way on example, some of the leading brands in the packaging industry for beauty and personal hygiene products have already started to do without plastic in order to bet on packaging made of materials such as glass, sturdy cardboard or fibers of plant origin. Other brands prefer to promote the recycling and reuse of their packaging and others have even opted to look for a format that does not need packaging. However, plastic remains the most widely used material in packaging in this industry.

The biggest challenge facing the industry is to overcome the complexity of its own packaging, which often has different layers of other materials. To do this, the cosmetics industry must achieve the manufacture of containers whose different materials can be easily separated for reuse.

This stage is repeated and can be largely can be transposed to any other industry, a fact that demonstrates the great importance of awareness throughout the value chain, from the manufacturer to the final consumer, as well as the actors responsible for plastics treatment and recovery plants.

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