The expert view on sustainable plastics

At last there is an official view emerging on how plastics can contribute to a low carbon or net zero economy. It has come from a group of experts who are advising the European Commission on the rules needed for sustainable finance. Their recent report “Financing a Sustainable European Economy Taxonomy Report: Technical Annex” has a lot of useful detail tucked away behind its rather uninspiring title. The experts lay out the definitions and rules for deciding if industrial projects can be labelled as ‘sustainable’ for investment and government support purposes. It is expected to form the basis of decision making for financing projects as part of the Green Deal.


The report comes out in favour of chemical recycling, subject to a demonstrated greenhouse gas saving.  The carbon footprint of chemically recycled plastics must be lower than that of the same plastic made from fossil fuel feedstock. This calculation should be carried out according to ISO 14067:2018 and validated independently. The target may actually be harder to achieve than it sounds, as the process is by no means 100% efficient and no credit is allowed for any fractions used for fuels. Energy is also needed to remove impurities after the first stage of waste plastic processing.


Virgin fossil plastics can also be regarded as sustainable if they are used for durable goods and are recyclable. This recognition of the importance of plastics in vehicles, buildings and infrastructure is a welcome acknowledgement that going back to ceramic pipes, heavy steel cars and rubber insulation is not the answer.


However, the experts uphold the European Commission’s opinion that single use consumer products should be made from mechanically recycled plastic. The plastics industry, and consumer brands largely disagree with this view. They question the suitability of recycled plastic for high specification applications, particularly those requiring food contact approval. As European Bioplastics put it recently ‘There is a good reason why, today, recyclates other than PET are not admitted as food contact materials, as, currently, there is no way to guarantee the elimination of potentially hazardous legacy materials’. 


The report provides a limited endorsement of virgin bioplastics. It is clear that they must be made from traceable, deforestation free and certified biomass but even then, one interpretation of the text implies that their application in single use consumer products is not sustainable.


So, the path is cleared for the financing of the most efficient chemical recycling processes, but manufacturers of bioplastics still need to convince regulators of the important contribution they can make to a net-zero economy.  Ongoing investment in all types of bioplastics will continue in response to an increasing demand.  Because, as the well known saying goes, “even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken”*


*Bertrand Russell, 1872-1970 

Published: 15 March 20

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