Environmental, Economic & Social Impact Assessment of Increased Plastic Recycling

Plastics are valuable materials covering a wide range of applications in everyday life and are found everywhere, from households to industry. Plastics have the potential to be recycled many times while retaining their value and functional properties. However, within the EU-28, a large share of this material (74%) is currently wasted, either sent to landfill or incinerated for energy recovery.

In the context of a Resource Efficient Europe, increasing the reuse and recycling of materials is considered a high priority for realising the vision of a circular economy within the EU. The European Commission’s recent Directive proposal, amending several waste related EU Directives (COM(2014) 397 final), includes proposals for higher targets for the recycling of different waste streams and materials and specifically includes significantly higher recycling targets for plastic packaging waste (45% by 2020 and 60% by 2025), as compared to the existing ones. This would require considerable expansion in the recycling of plastic waste in EU-28.

Taking into account the aspirations of the EU to increase recycling, both in quantity and quality, this report aims at highlighting the potential impacts of increased plastic recycling in EU-28 through an environmental, economic and social impacts assessment of recycling projections in 2020 and 2025.

The quantification of increased recycling impacts in EU-28 was enabled by the creation of a plastic waste management flow model, analysing in detail the potential future waste flows of plastics and the influence of the increased recycling targets within the different waste management options.

The scope of the impact assessment includes the plastics waste management value chain, beginning at the end-user’s generated plastic waste until the production of final recycled plastic materials (e.g. flakes, pellets) at the output of the recycling process.

Plastic waste constitutes a wide range of waste types arising from many different economic activities, but in the scope of the impact assessment, only post-consumer plastic waste arising in six waste streams are considered, namely: Packaging waste, Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), End of Life Vehicles (ELV), Building and Construction waste (B&C), Agricultural waste, and ‘Other plastic’ waste which is a broad and non-specific category including all other types of plastic waste that might arise from various waste streams, excluding the five aforementioned waste streams.

The indicators analysed in the impact assessment of increased plastic recycling include the net operating costs (including investments), Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions and the potential of direct job creation (together with estimations about indirect jobs) along the entire waste management value chain of plastics.

Waste flows and modelling

In order to determine the minimum amount of plastic waste required to meet the proposed recycling targets, a bottom-up approach was used by first setting recycling targets for each individual waste stream according to the existing and proposed EU legislation (or in the absence of these, set voluntary targets by the industry), followed by defining the collection and treatment rates required to meet these targets (for detailed presentation of targets by waste stream, see Annex I and Table 2). For the first time in EU legislation, in COM(2014) 397 final, the proposed recycling targets for the packaging waste stream refer to the output of the recycling process. The target setting within the plastic value chain model follows this approach and all the targets for the future scenarios have been calculated as ‘output’ targets for all the waste streams.

The plastic waste model includes the following steps in the waste management chain of the six waste streams defined in the scope of this study:

1. Collection of the plastic-containing waste (including transportation to sorting facilities);

2. Pre-treatment and sorting of the collected waste into different plastic resins (for ELV and WEEE, dismantling and sorting are modelled together);

3. Transportation of the sorted plastic resins to recycling facilities and other management options;

4. Recycling by type of resin;

5. Final disposal or energy recovery of plastic waste not collected for recycling and plastic waste from pre-treatment/sorting and recycling operations. 


You can read the full study here.


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