Our society is leaking plastic - we have to change this

Light, mouldable, strong and inexpensive. Plastic has many characteristics and we use it for almost everything. At least 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced in the world every year. In total, 8 per cent of the world’s oil is used for plastic production. By recycling more plastic, oil use can decrease, as well as carbon dioxide emissions and the need for waste treatment. But to get there, collection must increase and the recycled plastic has to become more competitive.

I fokus

"Plastic has many advantages, but there are also many challenges linked to its extensive use. One problem is that we are globally consuming more and more. Our society is leaking plastic out to the environment. We have to get better at circulating and re-using the plastic several times and making sure that we can really take care of the plastic put on the market," says Anna Fråne, Waste Expert at IVL’s Malmö office.

The largest area of use for plastic is packaging. More than 40 per cent is recycled in Sweden today, but by 2020 that percentage is to reach 50 per cent. Anna Fråne believes that achieving this goal will be a challenge. Most of the plastic packaging is still thrown out with the regular left over rubbish.

"More collection through source sorting demands the consumers’ involvement. This is why it’s important to understand what obstacles households see and what they demand to sort more at the source."

"Recycling is not one single activity, but rather a series of activities"

More source sorting and collection are needed, but there must also be a market for the recycled materials.

"Recycling is not one single activity, but rather a series of activities. To optimise the systems, cooperation and communication in the whole chain is necessary, from producers, collection, sorting and processing actors to those who use recycled plastics in their production."
To reach 50 per cent recycling, we need to stimulate the market for recycled materials and create demand, according to Anna Fråne.

"It has to become more cost-effective to use recycled plastic. New plastic is too cheap by comparison today. If there are then any doubts about the quality of the recycled plastic – then it’s easy for a producer to choose new plastic instead."

Healthcare is one example of an area that large amounts of plastic are used and disposed of every day. Little material is recycled; most is incinerated out of caution. In a project in the strategic innovation programme Resource, IVL together with other actors is studying if the recycling of hospital plastic can be safely increased. IVL’s role is to evaluate the environmental impact of various solutions and pre-processing methods.

Technically recyclable versus what works in practice

"What’s technically recyclable is one thing and what works in practice is another. A solution might require a lot of chemicals or be energy intensive; that’s what we’re looking at. The ever current question is "at what price". For new solutions to be good, they have to be of use for the entire chain otherwise there will be suboptimised processes," says Anna Fråne.

The broad area of use of plastic means that it as waste ends up in innumerable, more or less pure waste streams. IVL is therefore working with several different plastic waste flows, from packaging to waste from the construction and demolition sector, the healthcare sector, scrapped cars and electronics.

A question that incited much attention in recent years is the littering and the large amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans. Regular plastic rubbish from consumers is believed to be one of the major sources of the plastic that ends up in the sea.

"The cities are sources of plastic in the ocean. The plastic is broken down to smaller and smaller particles, which then enter our food chain," says Anna Fråne.

IVL is participating in the EU project Blastic, where four countries around the Baltic Sea will map the route of plastic from the city to the sea, what the large sources are and what the routes of spread are. The project, which has been named a flagship project, is being funded by the Central Baltic Programme and is led by the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation. A new approach is that regional and national strategies are being put to practical use in the project at a local level. In Sweden, Södertälje is a pilot area.

The objective is to develop a guide for how the municipalities can work to reduce littering by plastic macro waste in the sea. The guide will include everything from how to map the sources of the littering to how to measure the plastic waste and prepare action plans.

"The idea is that it should be easier for municipalities to apply the right measures in the right place so that they can stop the supply of plastic waste at the source," says Anna Fråne. 

For questions, please contact:
Anna Fråne, anna.frane@@ivl.se, phone: +46 10-788 67 41

FOUR FACT ABOUT PLASTIC

  • In 2016, more than 320 million tonnes of plastic was produced in the world.
  • The largest amount of plastic is produced in China.
  • In Europe, plastic is used primarily for packaging (around 40 per cent) followed by the construction sector (around 20 per cent).
  • In Sweden, more than 200,000 tonnes of plastic packaging was put on the market in 2015 (excluding PET bottles).