By Anke Henrich
China means business. "We are working on establishing a new circular economy for plastics," explains Li Shousheng, arguing that China is currently developing innovative technologies for sorting and preparing plastic waste. Li should know - he is the Chair of the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation. The giant country with its 1.4 billion inhabitants means business on both a small and a large scale. In 2017, it declared it would reduce the amount of imported plastic and paper waste to protect both its citizens and the environment, while in October of this year, schools were prohibited from using plastic to cover books.
Li's words were therefore one of the most talked about topics at the "K" trade fair in Düsseldorf, the most important international trade fair for the plastics and rubber industry. According to him, China is ready to learn from others and get involved in collaboration and exchanging knowledge. International mechanical and plant engineering companies also listened carefully to Li when he spoke about the increasing necessity of reducing the global flood of plastic waste through technological progress.
Less than half is recycled
A pilot study, published in time for the trade fair, shows that it is high time. The question: Leaving aside declarations of intent like the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the EU's "Circular Economy" action plan, what is the true state of plastic flows and the global handling of post-consumer plastic waste? The answer: In 2018, around 360 million tons of plastic goods were created, with a further 30 million tons made from recycled materials. Of the 250 million tons of post-consumer plastic waste, only 173 million tons were collected - either formally by municipal or privately organized, contracted waste collection and management services or informally by waste pickers, organized groups or smaller companies. The disposal of plastics waste in sanitary landfills and controlled dumpsites accounted for around 72 mt in total. Around 14 mt of plastics waste leaked into the environment (i.e. dispersion of plastics waste caused by flooding, wind or individual mismanagement).
In less developed countries, informally collected plastics waste contributes a high share to overall plastics recycling (e.g. India). Waste pickers usually collect plastics directly from the source, e.g. through door-to-door collection or recovery of marketable plastics fractions from dumpsites.
Seven international associations and organizations from the Global Plastic Alliance collected this data and documented it in the "Global Plastic Flow" study. The data was provided by 44 countries, which constitute around 60 percent of the global population and around 80 percent of global GDP. The result would presumably have been even more depressing if more countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe were to record reliable data. Yet the recovery of marketable plastics fractions for recycling is a profitable business for many people in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
"We were able to clearly identify the previous weak points of refuse collection and recycling, as well as hot spots with increased need for action to reduce unsorted waste treatment," says Dr. Jürgen Bruder, the leader behind the study and General Manager of the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films. "The amount of waste which enters the environment is dramatic and should be a wake-up call."
The authors of the study come to the conclusion: "Therefore: Plastics must be considered as a valuable resource. Circular economy has top priority in fight against marine litter. Creating a functional waste management at a global basis is essential."
An opportunity for the mechanical engineering industry
This problem cannot be solved without new technologies, including in mechanical and plant engineering. Although this does not solely apply to China, the country is the biggest producer of plastics worldwide, says Manfred Hackl, CEO of Austrian company Erema, the global leader in the development and production of plastics recycling plants. "On the one hand, China plays a large role in how plastic waste is handled. Since the country stopped the imports of plastic waste, former export countries have begun to advance the recycling of their waste, increase their recycling capacities and return this plastic to regional plastics production. Progress has been extremely fast," says Hackl. On the other hand, China is also a huge export market for the corresponding machines and plants. In fact, it is the biggest export market for Germany. Around 10 percent of German companies have production plants in the country - and have done for some time.
"In order to use its own plastic resources and continue driving the circular economy forward, independent of imports, the country needs to establish the requisite collection, sorting and recycling infrastructures," explained Hackl. He gives an example: "It was only this summer that Shanghai started a large-scale waste separation and recycling campaign and established a collection system." More than 24 million people live in the greater Shanghai area - around the same number as in all of Australia.
From Hackl's standpoint, German and Austrian mechanical and plant engineering companies are technological leaders throughout the plastics supply chain and are well positioned to face the current challenges. He is convinced that, "if we continue to intensify cooperation when it comes to the circular economy, we will be able to strengthen this position further and increase the opportunities for export." Circular economy could therefore become a good business model for German and Austrian industry to export.
A study by VDMA also shows that the digitalization of a functioning circular economy can be a great benefit. The result of the study shows that optimizing reduce, repair, refurbish cycles alone will not be sufficient. Mechanical and plant engineering companies should invest even more in product design, production processes, manufacturing, raw materials procurement and meeting customer demands. China is watching closely.