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Europe's progress towards a circular plastics economy

The European Environment Agency (EEA) recently provided a briefing on Europe’s plastic consumption and its progress towards achieving a circular economy. The data was very interesting and showed that while some key steps have been taken, we still have a long way to go. Europe’s plastic consumption is expected to double by 2060 and if we wish to reduce the impact on the environment, more action will be required. Pollution in oceans has already seen a notable increase and the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the EU's plastics is already higher than the total GHG emissions of Belgium.

Where has progress been made?

One key area where progress has made is recycling.  For example, the report cites that the use of recycled plastic increased from 6.8% in 2018 to 8.1% in 2020. It also discussed that the mechanical recycling capacity for plastics in Europe has increased almost 6 fold over the last couple of decades (2Mt in 1996 to 11.3Mt in 2021). 

Where is progress needed?

One surprising statistic was that the use of bioplastics has only marginally increased over the last 10 years and still represents a very small market share (0.56% in 2022). At the current rate, bioplastics will therefore remain a niche part of the market and further action is needed to help this sector make a more significant contribution. Microplastics is also an increasing problem due to the inherent challenges associated with extracting this kind of waste once it is released into environment. 

The EU has put a number of directives and actions plans in place, such as the single use plastics directive, which is aimed at reducing initial consumption and the amount of waste generated. I am hopeful that these plans will make a significant impact over the next few years. I am also expecting that innovation will play an important role in reaching a circular economy. A lot of exciting research is being conducted which, if commercialised, could make a huge difference in the near future. For example, over the last 5 years there have been multiple finalists in the European Patent Office’s inventor awards that have shown interesting inventions in this space. This includes the production of eco-friendly packaging from mushrooms, AI-driven waste management, cheaper and greener bioplastics from sugar and woodchips, improvements in plastic recycling performance, and the extraction of microplastics from water. 

The next few years could therefore be very exciting and I am hopeful that the EEA’s next report will show even more progress.

The circularity of plastics material is increasing at a slow pace. Nevertheless, there are encouraging trends


chemistry, climate change, sustainability, energy & environment, yes, plastic, environment