Potential Circularity of Plastic in Europe – Dynamic MFA of PET, PE & PP Flows

Conference Dates

June 5 – 10, 2022


Plastic is an indispensable material in modern society, due to its many attractive properties, such as low costs, high durability, and low weight. As a vast majority of plastic is produced from fossil-based resources and thus emits CO2 when managed through incineration, considerable attention has been placed on transitioning towards a circular plastic economy, where plastic waste is recirculated into the production system, often through recycling, thereby avoiding the use of virgin plastic. However, plastic, and plastic waste, are very broad categories including various plastic types, with different chemical properties, as well as plastic products with different intended applications, used in different sectors and thus having varying lifetimes, degree of complexity in the design, contamination from the use phase, etc. All aspects, which affect and complicate the recycling of plastic waste. Hence, to assess accurately the circularity potential of plastic, the assessment modeling itself needs to consider such aspects. The aim of this presentation is to present a study1, in which a dynamic material flow analysis model was used to assess the potential circularity of PET, PE and PP flows in all sectors in Europe. The model covered all PET, PE and PP in Europe (i.e. from production to waste management) over a 50 year period, and included aspects of product life times, expected demand growth, quality reductions during recycling and recycling cascades. Besides a baseline scenario, representing business as usual from 2016 conditions, several scenarios were defined, representing key initiatives for increasing the circularity: i) keeping a constant plastic consumption, ii) no export of plastic waste outside Europe, iii) improving product design and recyclability, iv) improving collection systems and v) improving end-of-life management technology. The circularity was evaluated based on the indicators: recycling rate [%], circular material use rate [%], closed-loop circularity rate [%] and virgin material consumption [Mt], of which only the recycling rate represents a mandatory target within the EU. The outcome of the study showed that a business-as-usual situation leads to conditions that are far from circular, as very low recycling rates (13-20%) and high dependence on virgin plastic intake (85-90%) were demonstrated for the 50-year period. Improving collection systems and collection rates, as well as using stateof- the-art end-of-life management technology, showed the largest potential for circularity improvement as an individual initiative. However, all the individual initiatives were associated with limited potential for improvement. Instead, by combining initiatives, potential recycling rates above 55% could be reached and dependence on virgin intake reduced to 35-60% of the annual demand. Moreover, 75-90% of the plastic waste could potentially be recycled in a closed loop. The virgin material consumption increased dramatically throughout the 50-year period, for all scenarios with an expected increasing plastic demand. Thus, where the size of the expected plastic demand had limited influence on the relative indicators (recycling rate, circular material use rate and closed-loop circularity rate), limiting the growth of the plastic consumption was essential for maintaining a stable virgin material consumption. As the virgin material consumption is directly linked to the environmental impacts of a system and might indeed outbalance the improvements from circularity enhancing initiatives2, it is insufficient to solely focus on relative indicators, such as recycling rates, and even material substitution. When transitioning to a circular economy, also the demand should be stabilized. 1. Eriksen, M. K., Pivnenko, K., Faraca, G., Boldrin, A. & Astrup, T. F. Dynamic Material Flow Analysis of PET, PE, and PP Flows in Europe: Evaluation of the Potential for Circular Economy. Environ. Sci. Technol. (2020). doi:10.1021/acs.est.0c03435 2. Andreasi Bassi, S., Tonini, D., Saveyn, H. & Astrup, T. F. Environmental and Socioeconomic Impacts of Poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET) Packaging Management Strategies in the EU. Environ. Sci. Technol. 56, 501–511 (2022).

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