Recycled plastic does not end up in the sea

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Recovery and re-use protect marine life proactively

The world’s oceans are choking on plastic waste. It is not only environmentalists, nature conservationists and animal rights activists who are complaining. Politicians have also recognised the signs of the times: at its meeting in Nairobi in March this year, the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to start negotiations on a legally binding global convention to combat plastic waste. Welcoming the agreement, Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said that around eleven million tonnes of plastic find their way into the sea every year. He warned that this figure will triple over the next 20 years unless effective global action is taken. 

According to Mr Sinkevičius, the envisaged legally binding agreement will address all stages in the life cycle of plastics, from product design through to disposal. The planned agreement is aimed at filling the gaps that previous initiatives and agreements have not addressed, especially in the design and manufacturing stages, he said. The international agreement envisaged aims to bring all stakeholders together to achieve the overriding aim of ending the discharge of plastic waste into the environment. The commissioner said that the EU is of the opinion that it is essential that a new legally binding global agreement be based on a closed-loop approach to the life cycle of plastics.

Plastics are valuable raw materials

Collaboration is also a key aspect of the Global Plastics Alliance (GPA), in which 75 plastics associations from 40 countries have committed themselves to taking action to combat so-called marine litter, the uncontrolled disposal of plastics into the marine and coastal environment. This initiative to protect the oceans has already implemented 355 international projects since 2011 and is an expression of the plastics industry’s acceptance of the global challenge of marine pollution caused by plastic waste. The manufacturers of plastics are also aware that plastics do not belong in the sea – if only from the point of view that they are far too valuable a raw material to be disposed of in that way.

In agreement with politicians and environmentalists, the industry is banking on plastic products and packaging being recycled, so that they do not end up in the environment in the first place. This requires a functioning waste management system, though, and many countries in the world lack even rudimentary systems. In such countries, plastic waste finds its way from the land into rivers that then transport it into the sea.

According to the latest data from the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), the waste management sector in Germany recycles almost all the plastic waste it collects. In concrete terms, 99.4 per cent of the 6.28 million tonnes of plastic waste collected was recycled in 2019. Some 46.6 per cent of this waste, namely 2.93 million tonnes, was reused or used as raw material. A further 3.31 million tonnes, representing 52.8 per cent of the total, were recycled to recover energy, in other words used as a substitute for fossil fuels. Only 40,000 tonnes, or about 0.6 per cent of all plastic waste collected, ended up in a landfill or were burnt in plants where energy recovery was limited. In future, the aim should be to recycle and reuse even more plastic waste in order to avoid climate change and protect the environment. After all, material recovered from plastic waste can be substituted for virgin material. And plastic waste recovered and re-used in this way does not end up in the sea.

Statutory target exceeded

Plastic waste is thus a valuable material. Germany is already the largest recycler of plastics in Europe. And the recycling of plastic packaging is continuing to increase: according to information from the Central Agency Packaging Register (ZSVR), the recycling of plastic packaging collected in the yellow bag or bin was 60.6 per cent in 2020 and thus exceeded the statutory target of 58.5 per cent. These figures thus contradict the view, which is frequently expressed publicly, that the recycling system for plastic packaging is not working. Dr Isabell Schmidt, managing director of Industrievereini¬gung Kunststoffverpackungen, the industrial association for plastic packaging, says the opposite is true: the latest figures underline how plastic packaging is following a successful route towards achieving a circular economy. She sees recyclable plastic packaging as already being ‘the best solution’ when it comes to sustainable consumption.

Incidentally, as far as existing recycling facilities are concerned, Germany is also one of the leaders in the EU, with a total capacity of over 1.5 million tonnes. 

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