Europe currently recycles around 40% of the waste produced by households in its area with recycling rates as high as 80% in some areas and lower than 5% in others. The proposal reflects on a high level of ambition while taking into account the different realities and performance levels across the EU. In other words, EU loses around 600 million tonnes of waste materials, which could potentially be recycled or reused. Resource efficiency could only be achieved by turning waste into a resource, which helps closing the loop in a circular economy.
In general, packaging is a product constructed by using raw or used materials aiming to include other products (single or a group) in order to protect them during the transportation as well as to wrap the products targeted the consumers. Packaging products are constructed for single or multiple uses (reuse). Furthermore, a packaging manufacturer refers to a person or a legal company that wraps products or imports packaging products. This entity operates under the concept of ‘Polluter Pays’ having, in other words, the responsibility to promote the recycling of these products. For this reason, a specific and well known logo is included in the product wrap to indicate the necessity of its recycling. In particular, packaging products may include boxes, cases, folders, flower pots, hangers, capsules, membranes and bags.
The concept of circular economy is based on good practices regarding waste management which include the promotion of recycling, the innovation in materials management as well as limiting the use of landfilling. In order to achieve the above, the circular economy package includes specific proposals to amend the EU’s waste legislation. These proposals will provide a stable ground for long-term investment strategies focusing on prevention, reuse and recycling (EC, 2016).
In this frame, the targets set by EU in terms of packaging waste management are listed as following:
In addition, specific measurements were proposed to achieve these targets:
Furthermore, a set of incentives were introduced to promote these alternative waste management strategies as listed below:
The transition to a circular economy will secure access to high quality and affordable raw materials for European citizens, leading to a more competitive economy in the context of volatile resource prices, political instability, resource scarcity as well as increasing global competition concerning the access to raw materials.
The prerequisite step for the optimal results is the minimization of landfilling and the recovery of materials through the implementation of alternative waste management schemes. Furthermore, a market development for the products derived from the recovery process is needed to take place for the viability of circular economy.
On the other hand, no such scheme could be implemented without citizens’ participation. Citizens should have a more energetic role in the circle of consumption being able to separate their waste into the well known categories (e.g. packaging, organic, metals, etc.). The results from previous research on this issue have indicated the necessity of information campaigns in order to sensitize the community as well as training seminars for the participants (Vicente and Reis, 2007).
Taking into account the waste composition, the amount of packaging waste that can be recovered through the recycling system is significant. Packaging waste recycling strongly contribute in environmental protection and the improvement of quality of life (Banar et al., 2009; EEA, 2007; Anquilar-virgen et al., 2010). In particular packaging waste recycling:
Packaging waste are separated into different categories including plastics, paper, metals, glass and wood. With regard to their short period of use, packaging materials become waste relatively quickly after they have entered the market.
Several opportunities are provided in order to increase the recycling rate of packaging waste. Such opportunities include a better packaging design, higher collection rates and improved segregation technology. The key barriers in promoting packaging waste recycling include the profitability that depends on the unpriced externalities and price volatility, the collection and segregation technology as well as the split incentives. Finally, the proposed policy options at national or regional level may include a mandated improvement of collection infrastructure, increased national recycling rates, standardised collection/segregation systems as well as increased incineration taxes.
In the context of circular economy a number of sectors face several challenges, derived from the specificities of their products or value-chains, their environmental footprint or the dependency on material imported from outside Europe. These sectors need to be addressed in a way which ensures that the interactions between the various phases of the cycle are fully taken into account along the whole value chain.
Packaging waste management in the EU
EU countries implement different methods for collecting packaging waste. These methods include a) collection from bins for recyclable waste and further separation to different waste categories in recycling units, b) collection from separate bins for the different packaging waste categories (paper, glass, metals, plastics) and c) collection of plastic bags where citizens dispose their packaging waste.
There exist several recycling units addressed to the different packaging waste categories operating at EU countries. The majority of the EU Member States manage their packaging waste in their territory. However, in some cases there exist no technology or operate no such units in EU countries to manage specific waste streams (e.g. plastics, expanded polystyrene).
Table 1: Management of packaging waste in the EU.
Plastic packaging plays a key role in circular economy having an annual growth of ~3–5% globally for the next few years at the expense of other materials. The use of plastics in the EU has grown steadily, whereas less than 25% of collected plastic waste is recycled and more than 50% of the total collected material goes for final disposal in landfill. In addition, large quantities of plastics end up in the oceans which led to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals including a specific target to prevent and minimise marine pollution of all kinds, such as marine litter.
The first phase of the value chain of plastic packaging is the design and production of plastic material, while the second phase is the after-use of collection, waste segregation and reprocessing. On the other hand, the after-use phase is more localized and open to individual national policy makers. In any case, all the phases of value chain are interrelated, while the after-use measures need to be made according to design and production standards (Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2015).
In terms of plastic waste stream, the collected material is disposed at recycling units where plastic scrap is separated and washed in order to remove the unwanted items. The next step of the recycling procedure is the compression of the scrap and the formation of plastic packs. The final stage that closes the loop is the heating of the plastic packs at 200oC that transforms them to a fluid material which can be used as raw material for plastic production.
Paper waste stream is considered of high importance in the EU. Today, numerous products use recycling paper as raw material including kitchen and toilet paper as well as cardboard. The vast majority of paper waste derived from big producers such as super markets, while a small percentage comes from households and offices.
The first stage of the recycling process includes the separation of the collected waste depending on their quality. During the next stage, the scrap is compressed and formed into packs after removing the unwanted material. Next, the packs are disposed into large containers where they mix with water through agitation and transformed into pulp (95% water and 5% paper). Thereinafter, the pulp passes through sieves, where any other material than paper is removed. During the final stage, the pulp is drained and the transformation into paper begins.
Concerning the metals, these are considered to be mostly aluminum and tinplates. In terms of the aluminum, the collected waste are first cut into small pieces. After a thorough screening, the scrap is melted, while materials such as coatings and ink are removed. The melted aluminum is then transferred into moulds formatting large rods. During the next stage, the aluminum rods undergo specific treatments in order to acquire elasticity and strength. In general, the same procedure is followed for tinplate waste.
Packaging waste consists also of glass mostly derived from bottles. At first, several materials that come with the glass bottles such as stickers and caps need to be removed by humans themselves. Then, magnets distract metal material from bottles. During the next stage of recycling, glass waste is separated based on its color (brown, green and transparent). The cullet is produced after breaking the glass is lead for melting, which transferred to moulds formatting new bottles or other packaging material.
Another category of packaging waste consists of wood material. Waste from wood is transferred to recycling units and is mostly transformed to Refused Derived Fuels. The management process consists of the phase of the wood shredding in order to produce sawdust that are used afterwards as raw material for heat and power production.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is another packaging waste that can be recycled. At first, EPS is compressed and transferred to recycling units. The EPS packs are then lead for melting and concrete polystyrene is produced. This product is considered as raw material for new products including flower pots, hangers, signs and toys.