Plastic waste question goes global: China-EU sign Circular Economy Cooperation


10 Aug 2018 --- China and the EU have signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Circular Economy Cooperation at the 20th EU-China Summit taking place in the Chinese capital on July 16-17. The world’s two biggest economies stand to gain from aligning on policies that support the transition to a circular economy, which can unlock new sources of economic growth and innovation while benefiting people and the environment. PackagingInsights explores the significance of the China-EU MoU for the packaging industry.

It is expected that the transition to a circular economy in the world’s two largest economies could accelerate adoption of circular economy practices at a global scale, creating the potential for a “system shift’” towards a regenerative economy for plastics.

“This MoU sends out a strong message to the global community that the circular economy is key to a sustainable future,” sustainability expert and Director at Emagine Packaging, Richard Coles, tells PackagingInsights. “It is the way to go for both advanced economies and newly industrializing countries – in particular, for rapidly urbanizing ones like China with its unprecedented growth in production and consumption of goods that has generated vast amounts of municipal solid waste (MSW), including plastics packaging.”

“Much of China’s domestic MSW plastics packaging appears not to be recycled (in 2011, recycling rate estimated by WRAP to be 25-30 percent) and, unless landfilled or incinerated, leaks into the environment creating other forms of pollution,” he says.

Click to EnlargeAccording to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 80 percent of global marine plastics pollution originates from many rapidly developing middle-income countries in Asia in large part due to the absence or lack of a formal waste management infrastructure.

“Both the EU and China are starting to tackle resource inefficiencies with plastics and address fast-growing pollution concerns,” Coles continues. “The MoU outlines several ‘Fields of cooperation’ which cover a range of ‘strategic exchanges’ such as extended producer responsibility, green supply chains, legislation, best practices of the circular economy for plastics and waste; innovative CE business models, eco-labeling and eco-design.”

“Such ‘strategic exchanges’ aim to support the management of resources from cradle to cradle – i.e. the circular economy as well as the realization of ‘closed loop’ material flows and beyond,” he adds.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation claims China has been a frontrunner on circular economy policy for more than two decades. Its long-standing commitment to the circular economy was reaffirmed by President Xi at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last year. In Europe, the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy, launched by the European Commission in 2015, established an ambitious programme of action and a timeline for its delivery.

The economic benefits of the transition to a circular economy in Europe are well recognized: a 2015 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report found that transition to a circular economy could add €0.9 trillion (US$1.03 trillion) to Europe’s GDP by 2030.

The benefits of collaboration
According to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, this historic agreement could pave the way for China and the EU to align key mechanisms, and potentially create the building blocks for product standards and policies, which can enable an effective circular economy in the area of plastics.

Indeed, plastics has been a recent policy priority for both China and the EU, as the focus of the EU’s circular economy agenda in 2017, and covered by China’s foreign waste import ban in 2017.

“Collaboration is key to successful innovation and the international exchange of ideas, technology transfer, R&D initiatives and commercial ventures between these economic powerhouses and will no doubt spur the development of a wide range of circular economy initiatives and, in doing so, support several UN SDGs,” Coles explains.

“For several years, China has embraced the notion of a circular economy and its 13th ‘Five Year Plan’ (2016-20) extends reuse, recycling, renewable energy source targets and productivity targets.”

“It is early days and it remains to be seen whether China and the EU will fully deliver a circular economy. However, the MoU is most certainly an important milestone which will, hopefully, serve to inspire and motivate other nations to engage with the circular economy idea,” he concludes.

The NGO view
“The question is what value the EU brings to this agreement as it looks that China has all the knowledge?” Harmen Spek, Innovation & Solution Manager at the Plastic Soup Foundation tells PackagingInsights. “What does the EU have to offer? Feedstock? Maybe the EU likes to exchange knowledge about collection and transportation, but that is not rocket science.”

“For a successful recycling economy, a high-quality recycling output is needed, otherwise there is no business case for the trade of the recycled content to the production markets, who are quite demanding regarding the quality. Recycling of plastic is doable, but setting up a good functioning value chain without hiccups is something different; you need every stakeholder!”

“Processes like collection and segregation of plastics are probably the most important phases because the quality of the input mainly determines the quality of the output. When segregation of plastics waste is on a high level, all following processes will benefit.”

“Unfortunately, these phases are mostly lacking in all circumstances worldwide. I am convinced that transportation of waste should be limited as much as possible to avoid climate change but also leakage of plastic during processes like transshipment,” he says.

A step closer to a global recycling economy for plastics?
It remains to be seen whether other leading economies, such as the US, will sign similar MoUs, and how much value such agreements have in the search for a solution to global plastic pollution.

Harmen Spek thinks it is “strange” that such global agreements are necessary and that “to get to grip with packaging pollution, processing of waste on a local level is more desirable and should be the focus.”Click to Enlarge

The likelihood of the US pursuing a similar MoU appears increasingly unlikely given the ongoing trade wars with China.

However, as Richard Coles highlights, “US businesses have started to embrace the circular economy in recognition of the commercial (as well as resource and environmental) benefits that the circular economy business model offers.”

“Their entrepreneurship, innovativeness as well as the strength of the US digital economy are key enablers which will help motivate the development of the circular economy,” he says.

In the view of Spek, it is probable that other large economies will follow in the footsteps of the China-EU MoU because of the shared urge to find a solution to waste disposal issues, particularly with plastics. However, he is skeptical that the circular economy model as currently envisaged offers the complete solution.

“The annual plastic production worldwide was set on 320 million tons in 2014 but will probably grow rapidly and triple or even quadruple in 2050. These amounts are not manageable in any way!” he stresses.

“The only way and the best way to deal with the plastic problems is to limit production and use. Especially single-use plastics have to be limited on every level. Look at reusable systems, alternative materials and just reset our minds about the need for plastic.”

“In this way, we can maintain plastic for high-value use in durable products which will make plastic recycling more valuable. The circular economy is not the magic trick to reduce plastics in the environment; it is an endless fight,” he concludes.

By Joshua Poole

This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst's sister website, PackagingInsights.

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