Portuguese Pact for Plastics: effort did not prevent plastic increase in the market | Waste

The fight against plastic pollution is not a race, but a trail that is being followed at a slow pace. The conclusions of second report progress of the Portuguese Pact for plastics (PPP), presented this Thursday morning in Coimbra, raise no doubts: companies are making efforts, but it is necessary to speed up the pace and focus on the reduction and reuse of this material. After a first year of the pact, it has still not been possible to prevent the increase in plastics on the shelves or to improve the actual recycling rate.

In 2020, companies, associations and the Government itself signed a pact with a view to reducing environmental impact of the plastics they use. With the objective of fulfilling five targets that will aim at less frequent use of this material and the promotion of its circularity by 2025 – five years before what is in the European Union’s plans –, the PPP is coordinated by the association Smart Waste Portugal, in in conjunction with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Specific targets involve reducing, reusing and recycling plastic, as well as rethinking packaging and raising awareness among all economic agents, including consumers. “In this way, we find ourselves working towards the vision of the PPP – a circular economy for plastics, in Portugal, where they never become waste or pollution”, explains Patrícia Carvalho, coordinator of the Portuguese Pact for Plastics, in response to PÚBLICO.

Every year, tons of plastic reach the shelves of the Portuguese economy and the number keeps increasing. Even if we consider only the companies that signed the pact, 93,872 tons of plastic were placed on the market during 2021 (to which the report’s data refer), which represents an increase compared to 2020, which registered 91,520 tons – more about a ton than in 2019 when the value was just over 90 thousand tons.

After seeing its number of members double in the first year, the PPP currently brings together 110 national entities, including associations, universities, municipalities, waste managers and companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé. Companies are now “more attentive and involved in issues related to sustainability and the circular economy”, notes Patrícia Carvalho, but there is a lack of “support for entities, training, awareness and funding for changes to production processes”.

For Susana Fonseca, vice-president of the Zero association, the results reflect a “path already done”. However, more is needed: “The path followed so far is not having the effect of change necessary for the planned goals to be achieved”, she says, quoted in the report, adding that “this is the moment to take courageous steps and disruptive” to make the PPP a catalyst for change.

The fight against problematic plastic

Non-recyclable, reusable or compostable plastic, made with toxic products, which has a high probability of ending up in unsorted waste or which can simply be avoided (or replaced with an alternative with the same functionality, but more environmentally friendly) is called by PPP by troublesome and/or unnecessary and the first goal of the pact is to eliminate it in its entirety by 2025.

Despite global figures having increased, the percentage of problematic and/or unnecessary plastic in 2021 was still only 3% – around three thousand tons -, which represents a decrease of one percentage point compared to 2020 and a reduction of little weight, with 61 tons. Among the members of the PPP, plastic objects such as cotton swabs, cups, balloon sticks and lollipops and the small “tables” from the boxes of Pizza have already passed into history.

Another goal of the pact is to rethink packaging, so that, in two years’ time, all that is placed on the market will be reusable, recyclable or composite. More than half already have this characteristic: in 2021, 57% of packaging was already recyclable (compared to 52% in the previous year) and 7% could be reused.

Despite progress, achieving this goal “is both relevant and challenging” and, to speed up the process, two priority recycling streams will be established – PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and PP (polypropylene) plastics, says the report. the newly released Technical specifications for packaging waste from selective and undifferentiated collection foresee the creation of these new flows: PP waste and PET waste. If these flows already existed, the percentage of recyclable packaging from members of the Portuguese Pact for Plastics would rise to 65%.

Recycling and incorporation are challenges

If recyclable plastic already accounts for more than half of the total, the same cannot be said about its actual recycling. The most recent data in the report is for 2020 – based on the official plastic recycling rate reported by the Portuguese State – showing that only 34% of packaging was recycled that year.

The report attributes the reduction of two percentage points compared to 2019 to the safety and hygiene measures imposed on waste management entities due to the covid-19 pandemic. At that time, the direct disposal of waste in landfills or its incineration. However, Patrícia Carvalho recalls that “the consumer also has a role in the correct disposal of waste, being the supplier of raw material” for new packaging.

With recycled plastic still representing a minority, it is natural that its use in packaging also has little representation: in 2021, the rate of incorporation of recycled plastic in packaging was 11%, a figure that already came from 2020. PPP subscribers point to other causes.

“Although it is already possible to find several packages made of 100% recycled plastic on the market, more efforts are needed to increase this goal”, can be read in the report, where it is highlighted that companies face “challenges”. Market and legislative barriers that limit the incorporation of recycled plastic are the main problems identified. For example, says the report, the use of recycled plastic for contact with food is “highly regulated”, and, so far, the only plastic that can be incorporated is PET – found in beverage bottles and trays such as those used in the food court of a shopping center.

This challenge for companies highlights the need to align “all the links in the value chain”, says the PPP coordinator. “It is a transversal issue that does not depend only on Portugal, but also on the European and global context”, she adds.

Due to the complexity of this “priority” issue, the PPP deals with the incorporation of plastic in a dedicated working group to work on it from a technical and regulatory point of view, where three task forces: “Redesign of the collection, sorting and recycling system”; “Mixed plastics sorting” and “Incorporation challenges by polymer typology”.

Focus on raising awareness

Finally, the second progress report of the Portuguese Pact for Plastics highlights the awareness actions that have been promoted and are proof of the fulfillment of an “outstanding goal”, through contact with consumers through the platform and social networks of the PPP, training actions and communication campaigns.

Although the goal takes into account only the campaigns of the initiative itself, the companies also work individually in the communication for sustainability. To “accelerate progress towards the 2025 Goals”, the PPP also advances that it will implement the “Rethink Plastics” ideation program, with the aim of “finding new circular business ideas”.

“It should be noted that the Portuguese Pact for Plastics was only launched in 2020 and that these results still mirror the year 2021. In this way, there is still a way to go until 2025, and many efforts are being made by the members of the initiative, in the sense of guaranteeing an approximation to the 2025 Goals”, concludes Patrícia Carvalho, adding that it is with the collaboration that the fruits can be reaped.

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