What opportunities exist in the new plastics economy?

Bernard Harambillet,
Karl-H. Foerster
and Laurent Vallée
debate the issue.
Published in the dossier of October 2018

The European Union has set ambitious targets for 20301 regarding the reuse and recycling of all plastic packaging. Given that the consumption of virgin material has been booming since the fifties, these objectives call for a major rethink of our consumption and production habits. Everyone — especially companies — has a role to play in bringing about this new plastics economy.

Bernard Harambillet, former General Manager of the Waste Solutions business line, Veolia in France

“The most important is a demand shock. We must implement a real policy to boost demand for recycled plastic.”

“It is by pooling our resources and acting in synergy all along the value chain that we will successfully meet the plastic recycling challenge.”

There is now a growing general awareness of plastic pollution. What role do you see yourself playing?

Bernard Harambillet : It’s essential that this awareness is happening. But the most important thing remains action. At Veolia, especially within the Waste Solutions business line, the first task is limiting the production of waste, especially plastic waste. This is the advice we give our clients. We support them in their collection and sorting activities and are also involved in preparing recycled material to give it a new lease of life. More specifically, in 2018 we are developing innovative digital and participatory collection schemes that reward increasingly engaged citizens. We are focusing our efforts on strengthening our capacity to turn plastic into a secondary raw material and on creating circular economy loops with manufacturers, who are also getting increasingly involved.

Laurent Vallée : Plastic pollution is a collective issue. Together, as actors in the chain — plastic manufacturers and retailers, along with industrialists, reprocessors like Veolia, local authorities and individual citizens — we must all grasp the urgency of the situation regarding plastic on a global scale. As a retailer in this complex chain, our role is to respond to the expectations of our customers, who are becoming more aware at an ever faster rate. We are therefore working actively with our suppliers, especially those for our own brands, so that they can offer us improved packaging that is recyclable or biodegradable. We are also taking advantage of our direct contact with customers to raise their awareness of packaging issues.

Karl-H. Foerster : Controlling the impact of plastic on the environment begins right at the start of the chain. This is why we are concentrating our efforts on potential plastic pellet loss arising from the sector’s pre-production phase. We have also devised the Operation Clean Sweep® program to prevent plastic pellets from leaking during their handling by the different players in the plastics sector and disseminating into the aquatic environment. Antwerp was the first port in Europe to join this program, opening an advisory platform in 2017 devoted to the Zero Pellet Loss initiative. Plastic waste has no place in the environment, and ocean pollution is a planetary concern for which a global international solution must be found. This is why the European plastic manufacturers whom we represent have engaged in initiatives such as the Marine Litter Solutions program to reduce the effects of ocean pollution, in partnership with the World Plastics Council and the Global Plastics Alliance.

Karl-H. Foerster Executive Director of PlasticsEurope

“Plastic waste has no place in the environment, and ocean pollution is a planetary concern for which a global international solution must be found.”

In this new context, which levers would make it possible to reform the plastics economy?

L. V. : One of the key levers would be to incorporate the negative externalities of plastic, such as packaging, into the full cost of the end product. Incentive taxation is a major topic but difficult to implement. However, it could encourage the use of recycled plastic and alternative materials. Another lever is the necessary collaboration between the different players in the chain to innovate and convert a linear economy into a circular one.

K.-H. F. : To this end and to accelerate innovation toward more efficient chemical and mechanical recycling, we have set up three European platforms: Vinyl Circular Solutions (VCS), the Polyolefin Circular Economy Platform (PCEP) and Styrenics Circular Solutions (SCS). Each one concentrates on a specific plastic as there is no single solution. In addition, eco-design will also play a significant role in the sustainable use of resources. By working on plastic reuse and recycling, we will obtain better quality recycled plastic, which will thus enjoy wider use.

B. H. : The first lever is political. The announcement made to “move toward 100% recycled plastic in 2025” obviously represents an extremely ambitious policy goal for France, given that the current percentage is 22%, far behind the European average of 41%2. In order to increase this rate, measures such as expanding the waste-sorting guidelines to all plastics are currently being applied. They would allow all French people to throw all plastic waste into the recycling bin, including waste that even the best recyclers wonder about, such as yoghurt pots and tubs. This extension, combined with the modernization of sorting centers, will make it possible to sort and therefore recycle more plastic.
The second — and most important — lever is a demand shock. We must implement a real policy to boost demand for recycled plastic. Some fifty manufacturers have already made voluntary commitments, announcing that they will incorporate an additional 275,000 metric tons of recycled resins into their products by 2025. This would be on top of the 300,000 metric tons already incorporated. This is a significant and encouraging commitment, but much more needs to be done regarding the 3.6 million metric tons of plastic put on the market each year in France.

Laurent Vallée General Secretary of the Carrefour Group

“One of the key levers would be to incorporate the negative externalities of plastic, such as packaging, into the full cost of the end product.”

In what way does this new economy represent a major environmental issue?

B. H. : Because it is becoming more circular, it responds to the urgency we face on a daily basis to limit the impact of our activities — operations, production and consumption — on the environment. I’m thinking of the millions of tons of plastic that are found in nature and pose a serious threat to our ecosystems, especially the marine environment. According to the UN, almost 320 million metric tons of plastic are produced worldwide each year and eight million tons end up in the oceans, which is equivalent to the weight of 800 Eiffel Towers. No one is indifferent to the increasing number of shocking images showing what we are doing to our planet’s flora and fauna.

K.-H. F. : This is a major challenge because, if the current trend continues, plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050 due to the increase in the world’s population. It is therefore urgent to find solutions.

What obstacles lie in the way of the emergence of a genuine circular plastics economy?

K.-H. F. : At present, there are significant disparities among the EU member states in terms of recycling infrastructure and the financial aid to modernize it. However, we need a strong engagement from the public authorities at every level — European, national and local — including the adoption of appropriate regulatory frameworks and adequate public investment. Inevitably, this context is slowing down progress regarding the collection rate of plastic products. 27.3% of plastic waste2 is still being sent to landfill instead. Even if the situation is improving in many European countries, landfilling remains the first or second treatment option for plastic waste. We cannot leave it at that: PlasticsEurope supports the goal of “zero plastic to landfill” and 100% plastic waste recovery.

L. V. : Another obstacle is that we are lagging behind in terms of product eco-design — including packaging — and this eco-design must become more widespread. Soon manufacturers will no longer be able to launch a product on the market whose recyclability cannot be guaranteed or, more precisely, individual customers will no longer buy it. Thinking about a product’s effective recyclability before it goes on the market will become the rule.

An ambitious plastics strategy

The European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, adopted on January 16, 2018, looks to change the way in which plastic products are designed, manufactured, used and recycled in the EU. It calls for the adoption of standardized rules between all member states and emphasizes the need to limit the amount of plastic waste sent to landfill.

B. H. : Exactly. Not thinking about a product’s recyclability until it becomes a waste item will no longer be an option. Things are changing: as demonstrated for instance by our research and development initiative to recycle and recover solar panels that contain plastic elements, undertaken in partnership with PV Cycle. All the same, the main stumbling block remains the demand for recycled plastic, which is currently much too low. It is particularly a question of reassuring manufacturers about the technical properties of recycled plastics and, as is true for all plastic, their possible impact on health.
Another major obstacle is plastic pollution’s international dimension: the solution does not depend on a single country. Veolia wants to deliver solutions on a global scale, supporting both major manufacturers and local communities. On a Group level, our ambition is to create an industrial plastic recycling and recovery sector. In concrete terms for Veolia, the goal is to increase our plastic recycling revenue fivefold by 2025, from 200 million to one billion euros.

What measures are you encouraging to achieve the European goals for plastic?

B. H. : We are able to transform large amounts of plastic so that it can be reintegrated into production processes. The solution exists. However, if we take the French government’s target of 100% recycled and recovered plastic by 2025, it is essential to increase the collection of plastic waste, support the necessary investment in industrial facilities — around two billion euros — and define incentive economic mechanisms and the regulatory framework to support the competitiveness of recycled plastic.

K.-H. F. : Our organization has put forward the Plastics 2030 Voluntary Commitment, which includes both ambitious targets and initiatives to be implemented by 2030. This plan concentrates on reducing plastic loss into the environment, improving resource efficiency, and increasing the circularity of plastic packaging. As previously mentioned, our aim is to achieve 100% reuse, recycling and/or recovery of all plastic packaging by 2040 for EU-28, along with Norway and Switzerland. With the ambition of reaching 60% reuse and recycling of plastic packaging by 2030.

L. V. : Carrefour is aiming to use 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging for its products by 2025. This implies long-term discussions with our suppliers and partnership approaches with reprocessors like Veolia.

How are you supporting citizens, local authorities, industrialists and retailers in introducing practices and technologies that promote the circular use of plastic?

L. V. : In 2013, we introduced symbols on all Carrefour brand products. This has made it easier to read the information, allowing everyone to sort their waste more easily, encouraging high-quality collection, and reducing the number of potentially recoverable products being sent to landfill.

B. H. : We are joining forces, for example, with startups that raise people’s awareness of plastic recycling issues. In this respect, we are partnering the start-up Yoyo, a collaborative platform that offers a wastesorting reward to volunteers organized in a network. Its aim is to double the PET plastic recycling rate in France, which is currently under 35%, especially in major cities. During initial trials in Bordeaux and Lyon, the Yoyo community achieved waste-sorting performances twice as high as the national average. It is by pooling our resources and acting in synergy all along the value chain that we will successfully meet the plastic recycling challenge.


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1.Source : A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy
2. Source : Plastics - the Facts 2017, PlasticsEurope