There’s no question plastic is useful, but there are big problems with our current extensive usage of it.
Plastic waste clogs up our oceans and endangers our biodiversity. Plastics commonly have their origins in fossil fuels, which contributes to CO2 emissions in their end-of-life phase. Plastic materials release toxic substances and degrade into microplastics, with uncertain health effects that are widely spread in nature.
The list goes on.
So how can we change our usage of plastics so we can keep the benefits, while at the same time limiting the problems?
Around 280 million tonnes of plastic are created yearly. Plastic is used in most product groups, but the largest category is packaging - followed by buildings, the automotive industry and electronics.
“Only 16% of plastic in Sweden is recycled.”
In Sweden, packaging is the responsibility of the producer, leading to some material recovery of plastic packaging. However, the collection rate is around 50%, low compared to other waste, and a large percentage of the plastic packaging collected is incinerated instead of being recycled.
Plastic products other than consumer packages are not covered by producer responsibility, and only 16% of plastic in Sweden is recycled. This may seem low, but it's high compared to the rate globally or in the EU.
What makes recycling of plastics complicated is that there are many different types of plastic materials and also several additives that need to be separated into different recycling streams.
Some types of plastic can be easily and profitably recycled, while others are not recyclable, at least not with a reasonable economy compared to incineration.
The five most common types of plastics are:
- PE (Polyethylene) is the most common type of plastic used in packaging but it's also common in other applications. PE is easily recyclable.
- PP (Polypropylene) is the second most common type of plastic used in packaging. Common in plastic films and food packages. PP is easily recyclable.
- PS (Polystyrene) is frequently used in single-use items and as insulation, both in packages and in the building sector. PS is expensive to recycle in relation to the value of the material.
- PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is commonly used in the building sector due to its durability and inherent fire-retardant properties. It often contains unhealthy additives. PVC could be recycled if there were large quantities of it that did not contain too many additives. Currently PVC is a large obstacle for recycling when it is present in PE or PP material flows. PVC may release toxins when incinerated.
- PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is used mostly for textiles such as fleece clothes but the second largest usage is plastic bottles. The bottles in the Swedish plant system can easily be recycled but other PET-fractions are recycled to a lower extent.
Climathon Lund asked; how we can limit the climate impact of plastic?
To reach set targets Climathon Lund proposed new ideas and business solutions in a number of areas. For example:
- Development of bio-based, plastics and finding sustainable feedstock for plastic materials
- Ways to decrease the usage of plastic materials and encourage more sustainable use of plastic materials
- Digital solutions to track plastic materials through the entire value chain
- Design of circular material flows for plastic materials
- New sustainable product designs that can change behaviours
- Solutions on how to reuse plastic items
- Ways to enable households and companies to better sort plastic waste
- Better solutions to sort collected plastic waste
- Ideas on how to expand recycling of plastics from packaging to building waste, automotive parts, electronics, textiles and other consumer items
- Business solutions that increase demand of reused plastics