HomeEuropeHow the EU can enable a circular economy in plastics packaging

How the EU can enable a circular economy in plastics packaging

The European Green Deal sets a clear direction toward Europe’s decarbonization by 2050 and the transition to a circular economy. Plastics and packaging have been identified as key value chains with significant circularity potential which will require further regulatory action to reduce their environmental footprints.

The private sector has a critical role to play, supported by policy that fosters innovation, incentivizes the adoption of sustainable technologies and provides legal certainty so private investments go where they are needed most. For example, the packaging value chain is innovating to develop new alternatives like flexible pouch packaging, which reduces the carbon footprint of packaged goods versus rigid materials. Initially, these pouches were not easily recyclable, but thanks to innovation they are now designed for recyclability. In addition, a thriving ecosystem of European startups is developing technologies such as chemical recycling, which can complement traditional mechanical recycling to ensure more packaging gets recycled. Ambitious recycled content targets, including those for food contact packaging, and legal recognition of these new technologies are essential to support Europe’s leadership role in achieving circularity.

Ambitious recycled content targets, including those for food contact packaging, and legal recognition of these new technologies are essential to support Europe’s leadership role in achieving circularity.

Fostering innovation through progressive regulation

Chemical recycling is a set of technologies that offer solutions where mechanical recycling has limitations. This is especially relevant for high-performance regulated applications — like food and automotive — where mechanical recycling cannot deliver on recycled-content targets due to performance limitations and regulatory restrictions. Using recycled plastics in food packaging, with the exception of PET bottles, is a particular challenge given strict legal requirements to protect the safety of food contact materials.

The only way to reach recycling targets for flexible food packaging will be utilizing chemical recycling, which transforms plastics waste back into a raw material, replacing fossil-based raw material. This ensures that food packaging can be recreated as food packaging. In addition to solving the plastics waste issue, chemical recycling reduces the need for virgin fossil feedstock, further improving the carbon footprint of plastics.

The only way to reach recycling targets for flexible food packaging will be utilizing chemical recycling, which transforms plastics waste back into a raw material, replacing fossil-based raw material.

Scaling up chemical recycling will be crucial to address the use of recycled plastics in the nine million tons demand for polyethylene and polypropylene in food packaging in the EU today, which is expected to increase with the revised packaging rules. Consumer goods companies have already stated that they would be collectively looking to purchase 800,000 tons of chemically recycled packaging materials in 2030, a signal that shows how critical these technologies are for the circularity of packaging in Europe.

To help meet rising demand in recycled plastics, Dow has entered partnerships with, and invested in, several startups across Europe to develop and scale chemical recycling. In France, we support Valoregen in developing the country’s first plant combining mechanical and chemical recycling to achieve optimal outputs under the EU waste hierarchy. Across Europe and the U.S., in partnership with Mura Technology, we aim to build multiple world-scale advanced recycling facilities collectively targeting 600,000 tons of annual recycling capacity globally by 2030. This will help meet Dow’s goal of accelerating the circular ecosystem by transforming waste and alternative feedstock to deliver three million metric tons per year of circular and renewable solutions by 2030. The first plant will be in Böhlen, Germany, co-located with our manufacturing site to improve yield and greenhouse gas savings, and it should be operational in 2025.

To help meet rising demand in recycled plastics, Dow has entered partnerships with, and invested in, several startups across Europe to develop and scale chemical recycling.

In addition to treating chemical recycling as a valid technology, we need legal recognition of the mass balance approach. It allows us to measure how much recycled or bio-based raw materials go into our supply, so that we know how much of our product can be considered recycled or bio-based. Eventually, this will help us realize our net-zero roadmap to lessen reliance from fossil feedstocks — increasing the use of circular and renewable carbon sources — which will keep carbon in the loop for longer.

A good example of mass balance is the energy transition that has been made possible using a similar approach: energy companies sell renewable energy but not every electron comes from renewable sources. The important point is that the overall electricity system sells only as much renewable electricity as is actually produced. This way, gradual scaling is possible with existing infrastructure. Using existing infrastructure is important to enable circularity transformation in an affordable manner for consumers and with lower environmental impacts. The energy provided comes from a mix of renewable and non-renewable sources that enables a steadily growing share of renewable electricity.

Similarly, scaling chemical recycling will only be possible if it can seamlessly integrate into existing infrastructure. A mass balance accounting system will enable this. Recognizing this as a valid methodology is currently in the hands of EU policymakers. Formal recognition will help maximize recycled content use and meet EU recycling rates, as well as the commitments made by numerous brand manufacturers in a fast, traceable and efficient manner. The approach that is accepted must be in line with the EU waste hierarchy — that means it should not allow the use of waste for fuel as recycling.

Scaling chemical recycling will only be possible if it can seamlessly integrate into existing infrastructure. A mass balance accounting system will enable this.

Plastics circularity will also require investment in improving plastic waste collection and sorting to ensure access to high-quality waste in large volumes. In this context, the transboundary movement of waste within the Single Market is critical. Only a regulatory framework that is implemented coherently across the EU can allow companies to maximize investments towards a circular and net-zero economy, promoting innovation and preserving the European industry’s global competitiveness.

We look to policymakers to establish the framework that will enable a speedy transition to a truly circular economy across the EU as the decisions we make today will shape the industry of tomorrow.



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