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You can’t do without plastic, that much is clear. But it does present the world with a major problem. Plastics are hardly degradable and remain in the environment for centuries. Researchers and politicians now agree that recycling alone cannot solve the problem.

In a recent discussion at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria, alarming figures were cited: In Europe alone, 200 million tons of plastic are currently produced annually. In the world’s oceans, this represents a waste share of 80 to 85 percent. In 1999, the ratio of plastic to plankton was still 6:1. By 2009, this ratio had increased tenfold to 60:1. If we don’t rethink our approach to plastic, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, according to forecasts.

Plastic is barely degradable

When plastics weather, they break down into smaller and smaller fragments. But the actual mass remains unchanged. The fragments are mobile, migrate into the soil and waterways and eventually enter the human body through food. This is problematic in that some of the additives are toxic and can now be detected in the blood and urine of almost everyone. In addition, it is not known exactly what is contained in plastics.

Banning single-use plastic production

The European Union has taken a pioneering position and was the first continent in the world to decide to ban single-use plastic production. Equally unique in the world, legally binding quotas for recycling have been set, explained Prof. Martin Selmayr, representative of the European Commission in Austria. By 2022, nine out of ten bottles must be recycled.

Improving conditions for recycling

But if Europe really wants to be climate neutral by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, then recycling opportunities still need to be improved. That is why the European Commission wants to increase the proportion of recyclable plastic waste. The way was paved by a fee on plastic for companies, adopted in July 2020: In the future, they must pay 80 cents per kilogram of non-recyclable plastic waste. “This will be felt by industry and consumers alike,” Selmayr said. “Because only what is expensive will not be bought in the end.” The implementation of the legal standard is, of course, the responsibility of the member states.

Because only what is expensive will not be bought in the end.

Prof. Martin Selmayr, representative of the European Commission in Austria

Also interesting: Scientists find new method for bioplastic production using food waste

Take Austria as an example. Here, one billion tons of plastic waste are currently generated each year. Of this, only 25 percent is recycled. The majority is incinerated – and that causes CO2 emissions. Recycling ultimately leads to a circular economy, in which waste becomes a raw material again. At the moment, however, only 10 percent of the Austrian economy is circular, according to Austrian Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler.

Avoiding plastic altogether

In addition to recycling and switching to bio-based plastics, it still takes the will to avoid plastic. “The global arable land will not be enough to grow the required amount of suitable plant-based raw materials,” Gewessler said. That’s why she is also focusing on avoidance and wants to reduce the amount of plastic waste by 20 percent. The bulk comes from packaging, and Gewessler is currently working through a long list. She is questioning both the plastic binding of school books and the plastic bags in which magazines are packed when sent by mail.

Single-use deposit and a quota for reusables

Gewessler wants to reduce the high volume of waste from plastic bottles with a two-pillar model: From January 2024, a quota for reusables will come into force. Consumers will then be able to choose between a single-use deposit and a reusable system. This is a significant step because large parts of the food retail sector currently do not offer any reusable products at all, says the environment minister. At the same time, she said, “It is simply the most ecologically sensible option to use bottles more often. Austria is also the only country in the EU that has such a binding regulation.”

It is simply the most ecologically sensible variant to use bottles more often.

Leonore Gewessler, Austrian Environment Minister

An unmanageable number of types of plastic

When plastic enters the environment, it poses a threat to both people and nature. That’s why the researchers from the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences who participated in the discussion are calling for a strict collection system. But this will fail simply due to the variety of different types of plastic. Not every type of plastic is suitable for every application. Environmental biotechnologist Dr. Ines Fritz explains: “Today, we are already able to shape and modify the properties of plastics so that they are suitable for all kinds of applications. As a single substance, they are theoretically 100 percent recyclable.” But they would then also have to be collected separately in all households. With quantities in the three-digit range, this seems almost impossible.

Just as there is no single type of plastic that is suitable for all applications, there is no one bioplastic that replaces all synthetic plastics and is better in all areas. “But where we can’t prevent certain residues from ending up in the environment, degradable plastics are vastly superior to any conventional plastic, and that’s where we have the applications, of course,” Fritz says. She is convinced that we could use them to reduce the environmental problems we have caused over the past 70 years.

Non-recyclable composites

“Our biggest problem at the moment is composites and multicomponent materials which cannot be broken down by existing methods of recycling,” says Dr. Doris Ribitsch of the Institute of Environmental Biotechnology at BOKU Vienna. She has developed a green process for extracting plastic from mixed fibers. To do this, she uses enzymes from bacteria found in nature as biocatalysts that can break down synthetic plastics.

But regardless of whether the plastic is synthetic or bio-based, “We would actually have to develop a separate recycling method for each type of plastic,” says Ribitsch. Existing methods are only applicable to recycling certain plastics, and not all methods are environmentally friendly. Says Ribitsch, “The goal must be to reduce the number of plastics. The smaller the breadth of both plastics and bioplastics, the easier recycling will be and that has to be the goal. We must collect as much as possible so that it does not end up in the environment, and then recycle what we collect – not incinerate it,” she continues.

We must collect as much as possible so that it doesn’t end up in the environment, and then recycle what we collect – not incinerate it.

Dr. Doris Ribitsch of the Institute for Environmental Biotechnology at BOKU Vienna, Austria

Controlling global production

But European policy alone cannot solve the problem of plastic waste. Plastics are also produced outside its geographical borders and inevitably end up in Europe. “In global trade, too, those who produce in a climate-friendly way should have the advantage. At the moment, unfortunately, it’s the other way around. We have to change this system as well,” Gewessler said.

Selmayr believes a market mechanism such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is not very practical in the plastics problem. He advocates a more direct approach such as the fee on plastic production that is already in place.

International legal standards

In terms of cooperation with third countries, Selmayr said it is Europe that exports plastic waste to the rest of the world rather than the other way around. China issued a ban on plastic waste exports from abroad in 2017 and it was this that popularized the circular economy in Europe. “All of a sudden, people realized that the circular economy could be a business that could create up to 700,000 jobs,” Selmayr said. But admittedly, Europe is not among the main producers in the plastics sector – and it is precisely these producers that need to be convinced. This will succeed if Europe sets a good example and international legal standards are also set.

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