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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Janssens

Progress and challenges on the path to a circular economy for plastics in Europe

Updated: May 27

European plastics recycling has reached a record rate of 26.9%. This achievement, detailed in Plastics Europe’s latest circular economy report, marks the first time that recycling rates have overtaken the volumes of plastic waste sent to landfill. This is evidence of significant progress towards a circular economy for plastics – yet the path ahead is not free from obstacles.

A landscape of uneven progress

Overall, our findings present a dual picture. On the one hand, the collective efforts of the European plastics industry have led to a 70% surge in the use of recycled plastics since 2018. In addition, circular materials now represent 13.5% of the plastics in new products, meaning that we are more than halfway towards realizing the ambition set out in the ‘Plastics Transition’ roadmap of achieving 25% circular plastics by 2030.

Nevertheless, serious barriers and bottlenecks remain. The share of plastic waste sent to incineration grew by 15% between 2018 and 2022, and more than 25% still ends up in landfill.¹ These materials, once burned or buried, are lost to the recycling loop, despite being desperately needed as feedstock for circular plastics.

Enhancing the availability of feedstock

To close the gap, we need to significant upscale the collection and sorting of post-consumer plastic waste. Recycling rates for separately collected plastics are 13 times higher than those collected via mixed streams, underlining the urgency of introducing ambitious Extended Producer Responsibility schemes, along with other mandatory measures.

Policy is also needed to maximize the potential of other feedstock channels. This includes a push to increase the availability of biomass and captured carbon, which currently contribute only 1% and a negligible percentage, respectively, to Europe's plastic production.

Equally important, we need widespread acknowledgment of chemical recycling's role as an essential complement to mechanical recycling. Serving as an alternative for materials that are unsuitable for mechanical processing, it is a key to diverting waste from landfilling and incineration.

Despite this, our data shows that chemical recycling accounted for only 0.1% of European plastics production in 2022, compared to 13.2% for post-consumer mechanical recycling. To increase this figure, we need policies that stimulate both demand for and investment in chemical recycling.

Safeguarding Europe’s competitiveness

While vital, these measures alone will not move the needle on global circularity. Since 2006, Europe's share of the global plastic production market has declined from 22% to 14%. If this trend continues, our reliance on imports will grow, and our capacity to invest in circular technologies and large-scale process change will diminish.

To safeguard Europe's future competitiveness, we require immediate and decisive action. This includes implementing policies that level the playing field, such as establishing a comprehensive EU initiative equivalent to the US Inflation Reduction Act, as well as the creation of a harmonized and consistent regulatory framework across the European Single Market.

An urgent call for a Clean Transition Dialogue

As an industry, we stand at a critical juncture. To overcome the challenges in our path and make the most of the opportunities before us, we need broad collaboration among all stakeholders within the European plastics system, alongside an open dialogue with policymakers and regulators.

In support of this, we call on the European Commission to urgently establish a Clean Transition Dialogue to look at the roadblocks and solutions for creating a circular, carbon-neutral, and sustainable plastics system in Europe.

Our report shows that a circular future for the European plastics industry is within our grasp. With continued innovation, deeper partnerships, and enabling policy, we can make this vision a reality.

¹All findings in the report are based on 2022 market data.

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