Plastics. They are needed everywhere, whether for vehicles, electronics, construction, packaging, in the home or in medicine. This is because they are useful, durable, efficient and versatile.
Global megatrends show how important plastics are for every individual: plastics help provide food and clean water for a growing world population. As part of a wind turbine or a solar cell, they provide clean electricity and protect the climate. And lightweight components in cars or aeroplanes get us from A to B in a way that conserves resources.
They can keep you cosy and warm: insulation, pipe insulation and modern window profiles save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Modern insulation systems made of plastic are becoming thinner and lighter and yet still provide the same level of insulation.
Vehicles are also becoming lighter, allowing them to move with greater efficiency. Lightweight plastics not only reduce energy consumption in electric cars, they also extend their range. However, it is above all clean energy that is needed if we are to realise energy transition. Plastics can also help to achieve this. After all, they are found in wind and hydroelectric power plants, for example.
In short: more plastic, less CO2. So plastics actually protect the climate.
A life without plastics? It’s hard to imagine today. We sleep on foam mattresses, electrical appliances make some of our everyday tasks easier and insulating materials make our homes more resource-efficient. And single-use plastic products are needed in medicine and the food supply chain in order to meet high standards of hygiene.
Are you surprised that banning plastics would be a very bad idea in terms of climate protection? A study conducted by the Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (Society for Packaging Market Research – GVM) in 2021 shows that replacing plastic packaging with paper composites, for example, creates more packaging waste, which is also even less suitable for recycling. Plastic packaging also keeps food fresher longer, resulting in less food waste.
The fact is, plastics have driven medical progress enormously in recent decades, for example through stents in heart operations.
And it’s not just medicine that benefits: plastics play an important role everywhere with their bespoke properties, whether in your smartwatch or as part of your car’s bodywork for a breath-taking driving experience. They improve our quality of life and help to ensure that products and goods are available to many people virtually everywhere and remain affordable.
For example, children’s toys: they were once a real financial outlay for socially disadvantaged parents, but today they are available to everyone.
First of all, you too can do your bit by not just carelessly disposing of plastic waste in the environment, because it can end up as microplastics in the ocean. Microplastics – such as films for vegetable cultivation – can also enter the aquatic environment from agricultural land. In addition, small particles such as microplastics from your deodorant spray, for example, can leak into the environment direct.
Fortunately, however, the industry recognised the problem some time ago and has launched many initiatives of its own. Agricultural film, for example, is collected again after use, filter systems are used and shampoos are made without microplastics.
And you already know exactly where to dispose of your waste, don’t you?
It depends on the intended use and it is always the dose that decides when it comes to constituent substances. What is really important is that plastic products in Germany and Europe have to meet extensive and detailed requirements in terms of substance law (REACH) and product safety.
The principle focus here is on dealing with possible risks to people and the environment. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has a scientific advisory committee that tests plastic packaging to ensure that it is not harmful to health. It also develops analytical methods to test the composition of plastics and how they are transferred to food.
This work forms the basis for the official monitoring of these food contact materials and items. Plastics are the only material that has been so comprehensively regulated to date. And the plastics industry itself also operates an extensive risk management system.
Fluoropolymers (a subgroup of PFAS: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are crucial for climate change: They protect solar panels from extreme temperatures and other weathering, and they also improve electrical insulation. In wind turbines, paints and coatings made from fluoroplastics are used on the rotor blade to protect the material from heavy rain or storms.
What many people don’t know is that fluoropolymers are also used in heat pumps, seals, valves, hoses or compressors and contribute to the supply of vital products or heating warmth. They are used where there are high temperatures or high pressure, or where there is direct contact with acids or other aggressive substances.
Regulation based on the risks that actually exist is necessary to prevent harmful PFAS from entering the environment.
According to studies, about 80 percent of the world’s marine litter comes from land. How come? There is simply a lack of infrastructure for waste collection and recycling.
Better waste management is therefore needed. And the plastics industry is playing its part: in 2011, associations around the world launched a global declaration to find solutions to marine litter. Since then, 80 organisations from 43 countries have already supported around 400 projects worldwide, including effective waste management and educating local people.
Since 2013, leading global plastics-producing companies have come together in the World Plastics Council to strengthen the circular economy and combat marine litter. There has also been Operation Clean Sweep and Zero Pellet Loss for the prevention of pellet loss. The Round Table EcoDesign of Plastic Packaging project also published management guidelines in 2019 on what the ecological design of plastic packaging might look like.
There is a lot to do, but we are on the right track.
It’s hard to believe, but plastic waste is a valuable resource. The German plastics industry advocates that trade in plastic waste should take place within the EU wherever possible. It should be transparent and follow strict rules on where shipments can be made. This means that at EU level this is regulated by the ‘Waste Shipment Directive’.
In many countries, however, the situation on this issue looks bleak. Waste management? Forget it! Moreover, not every country has its own processing industry. In the worst case, plastic waste ends up in open landfill, where it is exposed to the weather and ends up in the environment. This must not be allowed to happen.
This makes projects such as those supported by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste all the more important. They aim to establish local waste infrastructures and also to strengthen informal collection.
We want to recycle as many old plastic products as possible as often as possible – this is the goal we are working towards with almost 50 per cent mechanical recycling. The plastics industry is constantly developing new materials and smart technology that will make better use of plastic waste – for increased recycling.
However, there is also plastic waste whose components are so small, soiled or of such low quality that it cannot be recycled. But even this seemingly low-grade plastic waste still holds energy. And it can be harnessed. It can be used as a substitute fuel in waste incineration plants, generating electricity, steam or process heat. This is called energy recovery or thermal recycling.
Incidentally, this is what happens to the other 50 percent of plastic waste – so the waste management industry recycles plastic waste almost completely.
Plastic waste is collected by municipal waste disposal companies – the friendly waste collection service – via the recycling bin, the yellow sack or recycling centres.
According to the German Environment Agency, over 99 percent of this is subsequently recycled, while less than one percent goes to landfill in a controlled manner. One third of this recovered plastic waste is recycled. And becomes become plastic raw material again to be used in new products. Two thirds of plastic waste is incinerated – what is known as energy recovery or thermal recycling. Its main use here is as a substitute fuel, so it still serves a useful purpose.
We aim to continuously increase the proportion of plastic waste that is recycled with your help. Because you can sort it even better, but also because more and more plastic products are easy to recycle. We can do this together.
Waste is handled very differently around the world – this also applies to plastic waste. The basic prerequisite for handling waste in an environmentally sound manner and also for its recycling is a well-structured waste management system.
Collecting and sorting waste is the first step towards recycling. It is therefore important to integrate modern waste management into everyday life all over the world. Numerous political and private organisations in Germany are working to share the necessary expertise with regions of the world that do not yet have a functioning waste collection and recycling system.
It is important to create awareness there, not only among the authorities and in the private sector, but also among consumers, that the waste on the street is not just rubbish, but a valuable raw material that is worth collecting and recycling.
No question about it. If plastics are to be reused, recycled and also saved, products will have to change. But that’s not all. Because our own behaviour also has consequences. Because without you, the consumers, only a semi- circular economy will emerge.
Why? Because companies can only recycle what you separate correctly out from your residual waste in the yellow sack. Because by buying products with recycled materials, you are supporting them. Because careless littering is a man-made problem. And because we decide whether we should use reusable products, repair them, lend them out or dispose of them responsibly after single-use.
We can’t do it without you.
What we sometimes disparagingly call plastics are actually recyclable materials – and most importantly, they are high-tech, not throwaway materials. This recyclable material is primarily made from fossil raw materials. And when something is valuable and finite, it goes without saying that we should treat it with special care.
The initial question, for example, is whether I need the special properties of the plastic, whether I need the product and if so, for how long, how often or how much of it. Plastics make sense as packaging, but are not in use for very long. What is needed here is waste separation and recycling at the end of use.
And most importantly: never dispose of plastics in the environment!
Strictly speaking, you wouldn’t be able to read this answer without plastic.
Modern communications need plastics, regardless of whether over smartphone, cable or satellite. The same applies to renewable energy, electromobility, cargo bikes, medicine and a whole lot more. Plastics make access to safe food or clean water possible for millions of people.
And so the question is rather when and how can I cut down on plastics? Microplastics in cosmetics are one example. But even non-durable toys, that tenth pair of sneakers and a new smartphone every year are examples of products you can live without. Take reusable bags with you when you go shopping, opt for refill solutions and for borrowing and repairing.
Our modern lifestyle offers us many things – especially the conscious choice to consume sustainably. And this is possible sometimes with and sometimes without plastics.