4 October 2018

CIRC-PACK Progress Report – what’s the latest?

At the half-way stage in the CIRC-PACK project, we’ve (base line) analysed the current state of our different value chains – in terms of environmental impact, economic costs, social impacts and circularity. Here are the key points so far.

When it comes to packaged products such as powder detergent, liquid soap, chicken and coffee, the main contribution to the environmental impact of these products is the product itself, i.e. the actual environmental impact of chicken and coffee packaging remains very low. However, packaging for powdered detergent accounts for some 40% of environmental impact.

In terms of value chain circularity, CIRC-PACK notes that at present, most of these products have a very high degree of linearity due to an almost inexistent level of recycled material used as raw materials for the packaging. Recycled cardboard for packaging is a notable exception. As for laminated cardboard packs, these are not recycled due to the oft-noted difficulty of separating plastic layer from cardboard.

The problem with plastic bags

According to European Commission analyses, the recovery rates for another CIRC-PACK target product, plastic bags, remains stubbornly low. Moreover, when these are landfilled, such non-collected materials contribute significantly to ecotoxicity indicators.

In terms of environmental impact, the main factors here are both the raw materials themselves and the electricity used during the manufacturing process. CIRC-PACK notes that recycled materials can reduce the impact in two notable ways: 1. when plastic waste is used to manufacture the recycled materials, both waste treatment and landfill impacts are reduced, and 2. the manufacturing of bags will of course use less virgin polymers.

Our analyses of the circularity of bags reveal both positives and negatives. On the one hand, the use of recycled materials in their composition is in the order of 50%. However, end user collection rates remain very low. Thicker bags may be reused several times and therefore extend the product’s utility by carrying heavier loads than thinner bags – thus increasing the circularity of the material by two.

Addressing automotives

In our analyses of a third CIRC-PACK target product, automotive components, the consortium confirms that the environmental impact of recycling is indeed lower than incineration or landfill in most of the indicators used. However, indicators for ozone depletion, ionising radiation and eutrophication show a higher environmental impact for recycling because of the electricity used for the recycling process. Notwithstanding, in applying a monetarisation procedure to obtain overall environmental cost, recycling scenarios come out on top from an environmental perspective. Where automotive components are concerned, recycling such materials will require new skilled positions in the future – so aside from requiring the development of tailored training programmes, this may well add extra value to the CIRC-PACK project and to the European economy if and when replicated. With automotive components, the challenge for CIRC-PACK is rather to innovative towards increased circularity for these products.

2 October 2018

Europe’s Towns and Cities in Line for CIRC-PACK Benefits

Europe’s towns and cities stand to make real gains from new knowledge and innovations in plastic packaging, according to CIRCE’s Montserrat Lanero in a new interview.

Montserrat Lanero, project manager for the CIRC-PACK project and at Zaragoza-based research centre CIRCE, has told that local authorities across Europe could benefit long-term from knowledge transfer and key recommendations that CIRC-PACK will produce for municipalities.

As part of the European Union’s circular economy objectives, the CIRC-PACK project is applying new innovations to plastic packaging design (to improve sorting and recycling), and for the production of new bio-based, biodegradable plastics from renewable resources – as opposed to finite fossil fuels. It is hoped the innovations will ‘close the loop’ on plastics in the environment, and go some way to alleviating Europe’s plastic problem.

Ms Lanero said that across Europe, local authorities with low rates of recovery of plastic waste – and especially plastic packaging – had become an issue, but projects like CIRC-PACK “could help through knowledge transfer”, boost recovery and recycling rates, and raise awareness of circular economy principles.

“In terms of the environmental impact of plastic packaging, CIRC-PACK can really increase awareness among consumers in Europe’s towns and cities, but also among local authorities and public administrations,” said Ms Lanero.

“These actors could certainly benefit from project recommendations and enhance their current policies on plastic packaging.”

Each year in the European Union, more than 25 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced by EU member countries – the majority of which is plastic packaging. Less than a third of plastic waste is recycled.

Asked what consumers could expect from projects such as CIRC-PACK, Ms Lanero said that the advent of biodegradable plastic materials, made from bio-based renewable resources, would prove crucial.

“With CIRC-PACK, we have been collaborating with consumers since the very beginning of the project to take into account their expectations of future products and what they want to see from us and other actors in the ‘lower impact’ packaging market.”

“In the end, we will have more useful materials and better quality materials. This is key for consumers and the environment.”

Among multiple European initiatives to close the loop on plastics, CIRC-PACK is a three-year initiative funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The project aims to transform the plastic packaging value chain from a linear to a circular value chain, and transform waste to resource by producing new added-value products for a range of sectors (such as the automotive and hygienic product sectors).

The full interview with Ms Lanero is online.

1 October 2018

‘First Trials and Testing for CIRC-PACK’ – Q&A with CIRCE’s Montserrat Lanero

With the half-way mark fast approaching for the CIRC-PACK project, CIRCPACK.EU spoke to project manager Montserrat Lanero of CIRCE to update us on the latest news, and the big challenges bringing CIRC-PACK innovations into the mainstream as Europe confronts its circular economy agenda.

In a nutshell, can you remind us what CIRC-PACK set out to achieve?

At its heart, this project aims to transform the plastic packaging value chain from a ‘linear’ to a ‘circular’ value chain. That’s why we are applying a number of innovations along the value chain throughout the project -  addressing the decoupling of materials from fossil-based feedstocks, the reduction of environmental impact, and of course the creation of an effective after-use economy. We are also focusing on the design of the plastic products – mainly packaging products – in order to make them easier to sort and recycle. In this way, we can increase the recovery of plastic waste and reduce the quantity of plastics that go to landfill. This is of course very much in keeping with European Union circular economy objectives – and throughout the project we are keeping abreast of every EU recommendation in this area, in addition to asking our colleagues in the institutions for feedback regarding project developments.

What do you mean by innovations? What’s new about this project?

We want to replace polymers that are based on fossil resources with bio-based polymers. We will also try to create packaging that is biodegradable. CIRC-PACK will also generate products for applications that cover sectors other than food packaging – sectors such as automotives and hygienic products. Furthermore, the CIRC-PACK project also involves packaging composed of cardboard. And of course we’ll try to improve the very design of the packaging so that it will be better suited for collection. All of this involves extensive collaboration with all stakeholders in the value chain, and of course new business models that make it easier to evaluate the ways we use plastic waste.

How is this a ‘win’ for Europe as a whole?

Through the use of bio-based products we can decouple the plastic sector from fossil resources. In this way we can contribute to a circular economy and a greener economy in general, as well as to overall decarbonisation. Also, with collaboration among actors in the plastic packaging value chain, we can increase resource productivity. And as we design and produce our value-added materials (and even more conventional items), we’ll be reducing the volume of plastic waste that goes to landfill, thus increasing recycling rates. You see, the innovations developed in this project could be applied in every sector that involves plastic, not just packaging. For example, electronic appliances and construction!

We are nearly half way through the CIRC-PACK project. What is the latest?

I can confirm that we have developed an evaluation methodology to assess the economic, social and environmental impact of each the innovations in the value chain. This has been conducted by CIRCE. Crucially, we are also performing our first trials in order to check that our materials are of the necessary quality to create new packaging products. This quality testing is vital to the project. And of course at the end of the trials we will have our first prototypes of a range of different bio-based products. But we are also involving European consumers in this process – this from the outset of the project. When CIRC-PACK started, we were clear that we had to know consumers’ expectations of our products, and also to assess their knowledge of the impact of these products – environmental or otherwise! So we will be comparing our baseline scenario of consumer expectations, with new reactions to the products being tested right now.

At this crucial time, what are the big challenges you have faced?

The main problem for the CIRC-PACK project is the lack of lack of homogeneity. By that I mean that the rules of the game are different in every country: plastic waste collection is different, and the separation of waste is different in every country we work in. So it is difficult to provide recommendations that are currently applicable in every country. In reality, countries are at different stages. For example, in two municipalities in the CIRC-PACK consortium, Rijeka in Croatia and Kartal in Turkey, as yet waste separation practices are not as advanced as in other municipalities. To address this long-term, we would like to provide achievable recommendations so that these municipalities can increase recovery rates. The same goes for awareness of the environmental impact of plastic packaging. This is something we are doing at a European level, for everyone. And finally there was always the risk that the trials didn’t yield the desired results or quality. But in short, we have actually achieved what we wanted and we can continue our progress on a sound footing.

You mention local authorities such as Rijeka and Kartal. How do towns and cities stand to benefit from this project?

In terms of the environmental impact of plastic packaging, we believe that CIRC-PACK can really increase awareness among consumers in Europe’s towns and cities, but also among local authorities and public administrations. These actors could certainly benefit from project recommendations and enhance their current policies on plastic packaging. And of course we may have local authorities with low plastic waste recovery rates. This is an issue. But we can help them through knowledge transfer to improve recovery rates.

Finally, how will the European consumer benefit from CIRC-PACK innovations?

We will increase their awareness of the environmental impact of plastic packaging so we can reduce the impact of these materials. But crucially, through our innovations, consumers will be avoiding the use of non-renewable materials. With CIRC-PACK, we have been collaborating with consumers from the beginning to take into account their expectations of future products, and what they want to see from us and other actors in the  ‘lower impact’ packaging market. In the end, we will have more useful materials, and better quality materials. This is key for consumers and the environment.


25 July 2018

Spain Forges Ahead With Charges On Light Plastic Carrier Bags

As of 1 July 2018, businesses in Spain are now required by law to charge between 5 and 15 euro cents per light plastic carrier bag used by consumers, in a move designed to reduce the country’s generation of plastic waste and raise awareness of the considerable challenge which plastics pose to society.

The news this month that Spain has implemented a ban on the free distribution of light plastic carrier bags has been welcomed across Europe, as Spain forges ahead with a series of short-term and longer-term proposals to alleviate the burden of single-use plastics and plastic pollution in general.

Confirmed by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and Environment, from 1 July 2018, Spanish shops have been required to charge clients between 5 and 15 euro cents per light plastic bag (with the charge depending on the weight of the bag).

It should be noted that ultra-light plastic bags and thicker, recyclable bags are exempt from this charge, although according to Spanish consumer organisation and CIRC-PACK partner OCU, a total ban on light and ultra- light bags that are not compostable will come into force in January of 2021.

In a press communiqué, the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment said: “This is a first step towards freeing our environment of plastic waste and towards raising awareness among consumers of the need to reduce our use of plastic bags.”

The Ministry said that steps were being taken at a national level to raise levels of recycling and re-use, as well as to promote the generation of "quality recycled plastic”.

The new legislation is just the first step in Spain’s roadmap for plastics set out under the draft Spanish Circular Economy Strategy.

According to OCU, there are three broad categories of plastic bags in circulation:

Ultra-light bags (under 15 microns thick) are used for fresh or bulk produce such as fruit, meat or fish (and are exempt from charges under the current system); light plastic bags (up to 50 microns thick) which are now subject to charges in shops and businesses, and; the thicker plastic bags of more than 50 microns.

Come 2021, the ban on ultra-light and light plastic bags which aren’t compostable will place Spain among the leading economies in Europe for plastics legislation.

In Europe, of the 27 million tones of plastic waste produced each year, only around 9 million tones are recycled. Moreover, according to CIRC-PACK partner CIRCE, some 89% of plastic bags are only used once and in any case, typically take between 100 and 500 years to decompose – a burden on both society and the environment.