Hoang Anh, Matvei Galchenko, Kati Nikkilä and Quynh D Nguyen *)
*) The report was generated for Kompassi in a Project course of South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences, Environmental Engineering Diploma Program. The valuable input of students and teachers is hereby acknowledged.
Plastics use has increased 20-fold in the last 50 years with expectations to at least double within the following 20 years. Plastics have environmentally beneficial advantages for example due to the lightness of the material it provides climate benefits in worldwide logistics and transportation. Plastics’ use as protective packaging also improves shelf life of products and reduces direct food waste. Despite the benefits, plastics cause environmental problems which are not easy to solve. (Ympäristöministeriö 2021.)
Plastics can be manufactured from bio-based materials, but the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050 one-fifth of the world production of oil will be used for plastics manufacturing. This would contribute alone to 15 % of annual carbon budget. All together plastic waste emits around 400 million tons of carbon dioxide annually worldwide. (Ympäristöministeriö 2021.)
The world has awakened to the oceans stage concerning the disadvantages of plastics. Our oceans hold 500,000 tons of plastic waste which equals to 66,000 garbage trucks. Plastic debris is found in all seas, all depths, scattered in the depths of the shores or in the five enormous whirlwinds in our oceans. It is known that the plastic problem manifests itself in micro-sized particles, commonly known as microplastics. The effects of microplastics on humans and environment are largely unexplained still. (Ympäristöministeriö 2021.)
The harm by plastics is being addressed and countries are making initiatives on preventing plastic waste. China used to receive European waste plastics but has banned the import altogether. These prohibitions and restrictions together with European union’s comprehension on its responsibilities and duties in handling its own waste has resulted in the development of a strategy for moving towards a sustainable circular plastic economy. (Ympäristöministeriö 2021.)
This European regional plastics initiative is the basis for Finland’s own roadmap on reduction of plastics which will be the framework for our project. Our initial brief was given around the following questions: What to do with plastic? What is happening to plastic waste? How much plastic is recycled and in what direction is recycling going? Are plastics exported from e.g., Finland to Africa? What about elsewhere? When should plastic be incinerated in waste incineration plants and when should it be recycled? How should household plastic waste recycling be organized in cities vs. sparsely populated areas? Where does the limit go: how small amounts should be collected e.g., from countryside?
Since the project needed a theoretical framework, it was agreed with the client that the status of Finland’s policy and European union’s policy would be the framework for reflecting what is the status of plastic waste handling and what could and should be done. The project should be conducted keeping in mind the umbrella term “Cases of innovative use & new technology”. New innovations and technical solutions should be gathered for further follow-up on the matter of plastics.
Since the project had limited resources in terms of time and number of students the project targets needed to be narrowed down. In the second chapter we review the global, European, and Finnish initiatives which impact shifting into a circular plastic economy which gives a systematic approach and set targets for plastics handling and recycling. In the third chapter we revise how plastics are being recycled or incinerated. In the fourth chapter we present new innovations and technologies in handling plastic waste. In the fifth chapter we benchmark companies and other countries for best practices for handling plastic waste. In the sixth and final chapter we conclude that success requires participation and further innovation and investment from all sectors. Educating citizens will be equally as important.
2. INITIATIVES THAT IMPACT THE EUROPEAN REGION
Even though Europe has a unity country still have policies of their own, unique infrastructure and experiences in eliminating plastic waste. When nations face global challenges such as environmental matters national regulation and actions are not always enough. To unite European nations and tackle the challenges concerning plastic together an initiative was set to bringing together all sectors for the entire plastics value chain. The European Plastics Pact defines common goals in terms of connection, cooperation, innovation to accelerate a circular plastic economy in Europe. (WRAP European Plastics Pact Roadmap 2020, 3-4.)
2.1 Initiatives with a global focus
There are many international initiatives that are connecting public and private stakeholders to tackle plastic waste. Some of the key initiatives that are aligned with the European Plastics Pact’s targets are given in the table. The value of the European Plastics Pact is to supplement these initiatives with cross border connection, harmonization, and cooperation between stakeholders. All these actions together will inspire others to follow suit and help accelerate the systemic shift to a circular plastics economy in Europe. The Pact will help signatories comply with and go beyond European legislation and strengthen European processes. It will respect European environmental standards and the integrity of the internal market. (WRAP European Plastics Pact Roadmap 2020, 13.)
There are four initiatives which have a global focus and three with a European focus. The global initiatives are United Nations Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) which is a multi-stakeholder partnership that brings together all actors working to prevent marine litter and microplastics. United Nations Basel Convention is a multilateral environmental agreement to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes by establishing standards to control the trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN Environment Programme’s the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment unites over 450 businesses, governments, and other organizations behind a common vision and targets to address plastic waste and pollution at its source. Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Local Partners’ global Plastics Pacts are a network of initiatives that bring together all key stakeholders at the national or regional level to implement solutions towards a circular economy for plastics. (WRAP European Plastics Pact Roadmap. 2020.)
2.2 Initiatives with a European focus
The initiatives with a European focus are European Commission’s Circular Plastics Alliance, The EU Circular Economy Action Plan and EU Plastics Strategy. The Circular Plastics Alliance is an initiative under the European Strategy for Plastics (2018) that seeks to catalyze voluntary pledges by industry to help plastics value chains boost the EU market for recycled plastics to 10 million tons by 2025. The Action Plan announces initiatives along the entire life cycle of products, targeting for example their design, promoting circular economy processes, fostering sustainable consumption, and aiming to ensure that the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible. This strategy lays the foundations to a new plastics economy, where the design and production of plastics and plastic products fully respect reuse, repair and recycling needs and more sustainable materials are developed and promoted. (WRAP European Plastics Pact Roadmap. 2020.)
2.3 Finland’s roadmap
Finland follows the roadmap outlines of the European Plastics Pact. To achieve a circular plastics economy, the material must be managed according to these four principles:
1) Reusability and recyclability
2) Responsible use of plastics
3) Collection, sorting, and recycling
4) Use of recycled plastics
The key objective for the first target is to design all plastics to be durable and at the end of the life phase recyclable. The second targets to reducing virgin plastic products and cutting down the use of single use plastics. Absolute reduction requires reuse/refill systems. The third target requires increase in the capacity of collection, sorting, and recycling by at least 25 % by 2025 and the fourth target sets parameters for the usage of recycled plastics to increase at least 30 %. (European plastics pact 2021.) Finnish waste legislation follows the development of European Union waste legislation and the required up-dates have been implemented. In some respects, however, Finnish legislation is broader and stricter than EU legislation. (Ympäristöministeriö, undated.)
3. PLASTICS COULD BE EITHER RECYCLED OR INCINERATED: DEPENDS ON THE CIRCUMSTANCE
At first, recycling plastic meaning that, used plastics would be melted (lower tempt. comparing to incineration), then new material (virgin plastic) will be added to the melted old plastic, and at last, all of them would be re-mold to create new product. However, plastic is made by the polymerization reaction, it means a lot of molecule substances connect to each other to create a polymer chain. That means, the plastics are being recycled (melted), the polymer chain breaks down into smaller chains. With the definite of the chain, the plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times, up to 3 times depends on the type of the plastic.
Secondly, not all plastics are the same, and not all plastics are recyclable. For example, due to physical characteristic (to light in weight), plastic straw faces struggle to make through the mechanical recycling sorter, and the same story happens to plastic bags (Homewood Disposal services, undated). On the other hand, paper coffee cup (contain ~5% of plastic) has another problem when it comes to recycling (to those who wonder why coffee cup made from paper can hold water that good, because they have included some plastic to create a coatinglike surface inside the cup). To recycle a coffee cup, plastics and pa-per making a cup must be separated, and that process requires a lot of money.
Another problem with coffee cup is, as like plastic, they are not the same to treat them identically. (Recycle Coach 2019.)
In additional, the diversity of plastic kind is also a problem we need to over-come if we want to efficiently recycle plastics. Not all plastics are made the same. We have HDPE, LDPE, PVC, PP, PET, etc. they are made differently, even HDPE and LDPE, which both are propylene, but differencing the condensation leading them to two distinct types of plastic. That means, plastics demand various recycling solutions.
In fact, plastics are categorized into 2 groups: thermoset, and thermoplastic. On the one hand, thermoset plastics contain polymers that create a cross-link to form an irreversible chemical bond, that means they cannot be recycled. On the other hand, Thermoplastics can be re-melt, remolded, hence recyclable. (National Geographic Society, undated)
Finally, residue of prior uses must be removed before the plastics being recycled. Because of recycling plastic means melting and remolding plastic, any residue left on/in plastic products would also be melted, which affects the quality of the later plastic. Or maybe not, every recycling companies/projects have filtration process, which exist for this kind of situation: removing what left on the plastic. But as 2 Hydrogen go with 1 Oxygen, everything has a ratio, meaning, the more residue left, the more “cleaning” substances are needed. At the end, we, consumer, might not face any severe consequences, but the recycling site end up paying more to get the products ready to be used again. According to Recology (undated), dirty food containers are not going to be ditched (as we might always has been thought). They are just not as valuable as cleaner containers (some would feel less guilty throwing away dirty food containers). (Mother Jones 2011.)
All that we have mentioned didn’t give a correct answer of which one go to recycle plant and which one would be incinerated, but giving a clearer view of recycling plastic, why do we do or don’t.
Plastics production and recycling in Europe 2018
Production: 57,9 million tonnes/year
Recycled: 7,5 million tonnes (13%)
Most demand: PP (polypropylene)
Most common use: packaging (41,8% to be recycled)
Generation of plastic packaging waste per capita: 33,45kg
Most waste imported to: Malaysia (326 million tonnes)
4. NEW INNOVATIONS AND TECHNOLOGIES IN HANDLING PLASTIC WASTE
4.1 World’s first Ocean Cleanup System
It is common knowledge that there are a lot of clusters of rubbish in the ocean, some so huge that the World’s best scientists have given up on dealing with them – rather, many technologies and inventions are aimed at decreasing the amount of plastic getting in the ocean, not fighting the plastic already inside the ocean. However, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation – a nonprofit organization started by an 18-year-old Dutch student – accepted this challenge and came up with the first ever oceanic cleanup system, a huge device that is floating around the ocean collecting rubbish and debris. The snake-like tubular machine consists of a 600-meter-long (2000 ft) U-shaped floating barrier with a three-meter (10 ft) skirt attached below. It is sustainably and intelligently designed to be propelled by both wind and waves to autonomously catch the waste that crosses its rather long path. The Ocean Cleanup System is aimed at collecting tons of rubbish around the ocean with one of the challenges being to solve the problem of the Great Pacific garbage patch – such a garbage “island”, which is twice the size of Texas and contains around 1.8 trillion pieces of debris. It was, of course, considered an uncleanable zone but now it all can change.
The system is going to collect tons of plastic that is going to be recycled and used for manufacturing goods for sale which then will fund the future activities of the Ocean Cleanup. The non-profit hopes to scale up to a fleet of 60 systems to remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. The Ocean Cleanup aims to reduce the plastic polluting our oceans by at least 90% by 2040.
4.2 Edible water packaging
It takes on average around 400 years for a plastic bottle to decompose. When plastic is burned, hazardous carcinogenic substances are released into the air, and in the process of decomposition, impurities appear in groundwater. To avoid an environmental disaster, we must reduce plastic usage as much as possible. Plastic bottles contribute a lot to the amount of plastic used daily and eliminating them from people’s life would be a huge step in the right direction. The team at London-based startup Skipping Rocks Lab has concluded that water bottles should not be thrown away, rather, could be eaten or thrown at the street (since it decomposes and does not harm the environment in any way). Thus, a new alternative packaging of the future was developed that could rid the world of plastic cups, bags, and bottles forever.
The principle of how it works: Brown algae and calcium chloride are used to create the package. This combination was created by a student from London Rodrigo García Gonzalez, one of the co-founders of the startup. First, the required amount of water is frozen, after which a layer of ”packaging” is applied to the piece of ice, the ingredients for which are mixed in advance. When the ice turns back into water, the Ooho ”ball” does not lose its original shape, so you can take it with you instead of a bottle of water. The volume of the ”ball” can be absolutely anything, from a minimum of 50 ml. Moreover, the cost of producing one package does not exceed 2 cents.
The new packaging is based on the culinary technique of sphering, which is used, for example, in the production of artificial caviar. By the way, it was the conversation about fake caviar that became the starting point of the startup.
All you need to do to drink the water from Ooho is to peel off the top layer of the membrane, like a banana peel, bite into the package and send the con-tents into your mouth. The ”ball” itself can be eaten or thrown away without consequences for nature – it will completely dissolve in 4-6 weeks, like the peel from any fruit.
According to Skipping Rocks Lab, the packaging is already patented and can be used to store water and other soft drinks, as well as alcohol and cosmetics. For its development, the startup has already been awarded the Lexus Design Award and the World Technology Award in 2014, as well as the SEA Award in 2015 and the UK Energy Globe Award in 2016.
Of course, Skipping Rocks Lab’s goal is to completely replace all plastic bottles on the market with Ooho. But the company plans to start its march across the planet with events and cafes. Pierre-Yves Paslier, another co-founder of the startup, is confident that Ooho can make a name for itself at festivals, marathons, carnivals, and other mass events with a large crowd. Already, water spheres are being implemented at events in London, San Francisco, and Boston, and sold in supermarkets.
However, there are still some questions to this technique. The key moments are logistics and transportation, as well as volume.
4.3 Bacteria breaking down plastics
The technology is pretty much still new and underexplored, but what has been discovered now is that, as recently reported on Asahi Shimbun website, a bacterium known as Ideonella sakaiensis that was discovered in 2005 has now been shown to consume PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, film with a thickness of 0.2 millimeters in about a month.
Ideonella sakaiensis degrades PET by producing two enzymes performing each their own task. The first enzyme, PETase, cuts the polyester polymer of which PET is constructed into smaller pieces. During this process, PET is converted into mono-(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalate acid (MHET), ter-ephthalate (TPA), and bis(2-hydroxyethyl) TPA (BHET). Then the second enzyme produced by Ideonella sakaiensis, MHETase, comes into play. This enzyme converts the MHET into ethylene glycol and TPA. Thus, the bacteria enzymes can effectively solve the environmental problem caused by the PET bottles, since the two substances that are left can easily be broken down by other microorganisms, with CO2 and water as the result.
Since PET had previously been believed to be nonbiodegradable due to its origin in petroleum, this discovery could have major impacts on the future of plastic recycling and disposal.
5. BENCHMARK EXAMPLES OF COMPANIES AND COUNTRIES IN HANDLING PLASTIC WASTE
Sweden and Germany are two worldwide leading candidates in handling plastic pollution with slightly different approaches. While Sweden tackles more on recycling, Germany takes a step further by enforcing laws on banning single-use plastic. However, both countries struggle to deal with the root problem, which is to focus on reducing the plastic production from businesses instead of shifting the recycling responsibility onto customers. (Good with money 2019.)
In Sweden, the most common practice to handle plastic waste is incineration, followed by recycling, exporting, unknown treatment and a small portion of landfill.
Incineration: Most plastic waste is currently disposed of in mixed waste. This is incinerated in plants that produce heat and power, resulting in significant emissions of greenhouse gases.
Recycling: Less than 10% of of the mapped plastic flows are recycled for materials. Recycling plastic is easier the cleaner the waste flows are, but a great deal of plastic ends up in mixed waste, which makes it difficult to sort and re-cycle. Moreover, not all plastic can be recycled. For instance, while PET bottles when being sorted are reported to be recycled up to 84% from the original materials, construction and demolition waste are only recycled around 0.8%. However, there is great potential in improving sorting and recycling in the future.
Exporting: most exported plastic waste receives unknown treatment, and many of them end up in landfills in poor third world countries.
Landfill: only a small portion of plastic waste in Sweden (around 6000 tons per year) end up in landfills. (Naturvårdsverket 2019.)
In Germany, there is legislation requiring manufacturers and distributors to be responsible for taking back and recycling their own packaging waste. Therefore, producer responsibility systems, which are organizations that collect and manage packaging waste according to the requirements on behalf of fillers and retailers, have been created to efficiently tackle plastic waste. In addition, Germany applies many other regulatory measures on plastic waste such as deposit – refund systems, landfill ban, fee for management of municipal waste, etc. These successfully resulted in almost 73% of packaging plastic placed on the market was recovered in 2009. (Skovgaard 2013.)
Lush – Lush is one of the top cosmetics companies to pioneer in tackling environmental problems, especially plastic pollution. To cut down on packaging, Lush sells 35% of their products without packages and all the bottles they use are 100% made of recycled plastic. Moreover, Lush also offers a trading campaign to encourage customers to return their bottles, where customers can get a free bottle of a certain product by returning five used bottles. These bottles will be recycled again and molded into new bottles. The company also continuously make improvements on cutting down the plastic, for example, by making their bottles thinner and constantly using their voice to raise awareness among customers as well as other companies. (Lush No date a; Lush No date b.)
Quantafuel – By boiling down unwanted plastic into fuel, through technology called catalysis, the company reduces the amount of plastic that enters landfill and oceans. In its first European plant in Denmark, the company creates 800 litres (176 gallons) of synthetic diesel using 1,000kg (2,205lb) of plastic waste – reducing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds compared with producing regular diesel. (Love money, undated; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, undated; Quantafuel, undated.)
“No single organization or individual can do this alone. It requires a systemic shift, involving collective action by businesses from across the plastics value chain, governments, and civil society.”
For the European Plastics Pact Roadmap to work governments, businesses, the recycling sector, and citizens all need to be on board. It all starts with implementation of the necessary policies, budgeting for citizen awareness campaigning, helping cities and municipalities with their strategies and spreading best practices. The private sector needs to reassess their business models and portfolios, they must commit to reducing and reusing plastics and most importantly need to demand sustainability and innovate towards plastic free options. The recycling sector needs to increase capacity all over Europe to handle plastics which is not being exported anymore. The sector needs to produce high quality collection, sorting, and recycling and at the same time attract investors and innovation through new technology to further advance the needs. Citizens need to be informed and they need to demand education and information on recycling programmes, how to improve recycling, and what they can do to further add value to the materials. (WRAP European Plastics Pact Roadmap 2020.)
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Image: OCG saving the ocean on Unsplash.com