Plastics and the circular economy

HCF 2019 auditorium.croppedA stunning 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics produced since early 1950s. A miniscule amount of this plastic — created with non-renewable resources — is recycled or burned, and mostly ends up in dump sites. One million plastic bottles purchased every minute around the world. Jacob Duer, chief of the Chemicals and Health Branch with UN Environment Programme opened a session on plastics and the circular economy at the 2019 Helsinki Chemicals Forum on May 24 with these grim facts.

The session covered efforts to address the issue from industry, retailers, investors, civil society, what they are doing to promote action.

Ingeborg Mork Knutsen, senior advisor with Norway’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment spoke about marine litter and microplastics and described how her country is tackling the problem of marine litter and reducing single-use plastics. For example, Norway has had a recycling tax on plastic bottles for many years, and as a result has achieved a return rate of about 90% for all plastic bottles. Now the country is turning its attention to the challenge of marine litter and is in the process of developing an app for tracking and retrieving lost fishing gear which is receiving a lot of international attention.

She called for international cooperation in dealing with marine plastic litter and said secondary markets need to be found for recycled plastic material.

Mark Blainey, head of risk management, Unit I with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), discussed the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive which was issued in March this year. He also outlined a restriction proposal for intentionally added microplastics — the small microbeads found in cosmetic products as well as in detergents, printing inks and paints, makeup, in agriculture for seed coatings and other products, and small rubber balls on sports fields.

The proposed restriction is currently going through the scientific group at ECHA which will issue an opinion next year. A definition has already been developed, based on definitions in REACH.

Lorraine Francourt, director, Chemicals Management Policy and Circular Economy, Dow Chemicals, told participants about the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. A CEO-led initiative to keep plastics out of the environment, the alliance is focussed on developing the actual infrastructure for recycling and waste management in developing countries.

Eva Karlsson, CEO, Houdini Sportwear, described how her company is working with suppliers to develop biodegradable polymers for the clothing lines it manufactures, and to eliminate microplastics, and plans to achieve circularity by 2022.

Jacob Huer summed up the session by pointing out that to make restrictions work, developing biodegradable polymers is the only feasible option. The EU has created a tiered structure within the microplastics restriction so if it is shown that the polymer truly is biodegradable, then the product will no longer be defined as a microplastic.

Reported by Leslie Burt, Chemical Matters

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