The European plastics system needs significant change within five years to meet long-term circularity and net-zero emissions goals, a new report warns.
The April 4 report, "ReShaping Plastics," comes from a 12-month project commissioned by Plastics Europe and produced by the independent systems-change company, Systemiq. The study's aim was to critically evaluate current progress and assess what Europe's plastics industry needs to move toward a European Union target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The report confirms that circularity is a key driver of system emissions reduction in the short to medium term.
The study found that a fully circular, net-zero carbon emissions plastics system in Europe is possible, but achieving it will require radical innovation, ambitious policies and significant capital investment. The current rate of change is too slow to align with agreed climate goals, circularity policies and the European Green Deal.
The report sets a series of scenarios based on current publicly available market data on innovations, commitments and policies, together with projections on how these different elements — including emerging technologies — may play out over a long time period. A central finding of the report is that faster systemic change and more intense and effective collaboration among all parts of the European plastics system and policymakers are essential.
The work will require a substantial overhaul of existing systems and involve a more collective approach in the adoption of circular economy concepts across the plastics value chain that will apply to upstream and downstream solutions to drive significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and waste disposal in the next decade and beyond.
While today's industry and policy initiatives could more than double system circularity from 14 percent to 30 percent by 2030, leading to a reduction of 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions and 4.7 fewer tonnes of plastic waste disposed of in landfills or incinerators, these would still leave a highly resource inefficient system. Moreover, they are still not enough to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the study notes.
The report highlights the need for all upstream and downstream levers to be engaged, including mechanical and chemical recycling, the use of alternative raw materials such as bio-based feedstocks and designing products for recycling and reuse.
However, the authors noted, substituting plastics with other materials offers very limited scope for reaching net-zero emissions.
In addition to existing circular economy moves, the report points to other options that are not as well established, including shifting to green hydrogen, the use of carbon capture and storage technologies, shifting to bio-based polymers and electrifying steam crackers. Those moves will cut greenhouse gas emissions and tend to decouple plastic from fossil fuel feedstocks. These are critical to achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the European plastics system. The authors note that circular economy levers alone, while critically important, will not suffice.
The report also found data gaps in current plastic waste data that pose a challenge to understanding the environmental and climate impacts of plastic. For example, more than 40 percent of the plastic put on the market in Europe may not be fully accounted for in waste statistics. And while plastic still in use in the economy may explain part of this data gap, it cannot explain it completely.
"ReShaping Plastics" focuses on four of the most important sectors served by the plastics industry: packaging, household goods, automotive and construction. It presents six scenarios, outlining which actions should be prioritized for different plastic applications in order to meet circularity and climate mitigation goals.
It emphasizes that the next three to five years are a critical window for action. Long technology maturity cycles and the long planning period for capital expenditures mean that the decisions taken in the early 2020s will determine whether the European plastics system will achieve a circular economy and net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.
In a statement, Plastics Europe said plastics manufacturers are under no illusions about the scale and complexity of the transition. They have been investing and innovating to address the issues across the whole plastics system for a long time.
"[However,] it is encouraging that the report recognizes the vital role plastics play in achieving the EU's broader net-zero emissions goals," said Markus Steilemann, CEO of materials giant Covestro and president of Plastics Europe.
Yet accelerating the transition will require an enabling policy framework that better incentivizes investment and innovation and that harnesses the power of the EU single market, said Virginia Janssens, managing director of Plastics Europe.
To be successful, this new framework must ensure the availability of high-quality feedstock, as well as sufficient access to affordable, abundant renewable and low-carbon energy. Supporting the industry's need to innovate in a rapidly evolving world is essential. Chemical recycling, for example, should be incentivized and supported to accelerate scale and technological advancement, the group said.
In addition, Plastics Europe is proposing a package of measures to help implement the report's recommendations. These include the development of a roadmap to spur the industry's transition toward 2050, addressing the milestones, targets, levers and different pathways; exploring the potential of a step-change in collaboration with policymakers and the plastics value chain; and ensuring that policy positions are designed to accelerate the plastics system's transition toward higher circularity and net-zero emissions by 2050.
"The wider European plastics system is extremely big and complex," the association said. "Plastics manufacturers do not control all of the levers and we do not have all answers, which is why we support the call for more intense and effective collaboration between our industry, value chain and policymakers."
This report, while financed by Plastics Europe, was overseen by a fully independent steering committee and expert panel made up of experts from across industry, the public sector, civil groups and academia.