01.

Part.1 - What we use plastics for

01.

There are more kinds of plastics than you might think

We tend to think that plastics are limited to single-use or disposable items like plastic bags, bottles and packaging.

02.

Where are plastics used?

Actually, packaging only accounts for about 40% of all plastic products.

What about the remaining 60% ?

Plastics actually come in many other shapes and sizes:

Nowadays, most plastic components are highly technical and embedded in daily life applications. They are built to last years or decades, withstanding numerous constraints: extreme temperatures, impacts, water and air erosion, chemical corrosion…

Source: Distribution of European (EU28+NO/CH) plastics converter demand by segment in 2016. PlasticsEurope Market Research Group (PEMRG) and Conversio Market & Strategy GmbH
02.

Part.1 - What we use plastics for

03 .

Over the last decades, we’ve seen plastics replacing other materials (wood, glass, metal, leather, etc.) in countless applications, or simply enabling innovations:

  • Phones
  • Computers
  • Air planes
  • Vehicles
  • Furniture
  • Clothes
  • Window frames
  • Cables and wiring

02. Our daily lives with plastics

03 .

Over the last decades, we’ve seen plastics replacing other materials (wood, glass, metal, leather, etc.) in countless applications, or simply enabling innovations:

  • Phones
  • Computers
  • Air planes
  • Vehicles
  • Furniture
  • Clothes
  • Window frames
  • Cables and wiring
03.

Part.1 - What we use plastics for

04.

Why plastics?

Plastic is not a single material. The plastics family is made up of a great variety of materials, just like wood can be oak or pine, and metal can be iron or aluminium for example. The great advantage of plastics over other materials, is that we don’t need to rely on the limited types of materials found in nature. Plastic materials can combine multiple specific properties, offering the best set of performances for present and future innovations:

  • Lightweight
  • Robust
  • Hygienic
  • Resistant to water, impact, corrosion, flames, frost…
  • Smooth
  • Electrical and thermal insulation
  • Translucent
  • Flexible
  • Impermeable
  • Shape memory

As products evolve, so do plastic materials, and many of them are still to come.

04.

Part.1 - What we use plastics for

05.

Plastics combine properties to keep us safe while at home, work, doing sports, on the road or at the hospital…

Plastics also protect the water we drink and the food we eat from contaminants, and are essential to medical and safety products, including incubators, defibrillators, smoke detectors, oxygen masks, helmets, ear plugs, air bags, safety belts and even speed bumps.

04. Plastics, always there to protect

05.

Plastics combine properties to keep us safe while at home, work, doing sports, on the road or at the hospital…

Plastics also protect the water we drink and the food we eat from contaminants, and are essential to medical and safety products, including incubators, defibrillators, smoke detectors, oxygen masks, helmets, ear plugs, air bags, safety belts and even speed bumps.

01.

Part.2 - How plastics are made

01.

A recipe for plastics

Plastics are polymers, made out of monomers that are bound together using various chemical reactions and additives.

Creating plastic works just like a cooking recipe:
You combine different ingredients (monomers) and spices (additives), mix them together through all kinds of baking processes (chemical reactions) into a final dish (a plastic material).

The resulting material (plastic) is a whole new product, completely different from its individual constituents: monomers and additives are assembled and « glued » together.

Many kinds of plastics can be obtained depending on the constituents and transformation processes used. You can check them out HERE.

02.

Part.2 - How plastics are made

02.

Like any other material on earth (e.g. wood, metal, paper…), plastics can release tiny traces of their trapped constituents: this phenomenon is known as migration.

02. Migration happens with every material

02.

Like any other material on earth (e.g. wood, metal, paper…), plastics can release tiny traces of their trapped constituents: this phenomenon is known as migration.

01.

Part.3 - How the EU ensures the safety of plastics

01.

Customers are concerned

Today, concerns are raised among civil society about the potential health impacts resulting from exposure to chemicals, including constituents that can migrate from plastics.

Exposure differs when typing on a plastic-coated smartphone or drinking a smoothie prepared in the plastic bowl of a blender.

However, in both cases, consumers may only be exposed to tiny traces of plastic constituents.

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A typical driver’s reaction time is 1 second. Therefore, French authorities impose a 2-second-distance between 2 cars is kept by drivers.
→ The safety factor is 2

Would a usual food contact regulatory safety factor be applied to traffic and road safety, drivers should keep a 100-second-distance between 2 cars !

Part.3 - How the EU ensures the safety of plastics

02.

Before a consumer can actually use any plastic product, the latter has to go through many tests and regulations that producers must comply with.

For example, when evaluating the safety of a food contact plastic material, authorities assess the toxicity of all its constituents, and then define for each of them an acceptable limit of migration, carefully set with significant safety factors.

The allowed maximum exposure to each constituent can never exceed 1/100th of the tolerable daily intake !

02. Migrations are highly limited and closely monitored

02.

Before a consumer can actually use any plastic product, the latter has to go through many tests and regulations that producers must comply with.

For example, when evaluating the safety of a food contact plastic material, authorities assess the toxicity of all its constituents, and then define for each of them an acceptable limit of migration, carefully set with significant safety factors.

The allowed maximum exposure to each constituent can never exceed 1/100th of the tolerable daily intake !

03.

Part.3 - How the EU ensures the safety of plastics

03.

The EU has built a protective environment for consumers

The EU system was developed to ensure the safe use of chemicals and the products made out of them. Monomers, additives and polymers are all regulated and evaluated by the European safety agencies, supported by their national counterparts.

Besides the REACH regulation, which specifically addresses chemicals, many additional regulations apply to sensitive consumer applications: plastics in contact with food, used in toys or in medical devices, etc. These regulations define the conditions to be met – such as a Specific Migration Limit for every constituent – to ensure the safe use of the end products. Of course, these limits are updated whenever scientific knowledge warrants it.

The EU has created several independent scientific authorities, each one ensuring the safety of consumers:

  • ECHA (European Chemicals Agency). Through the REACH regulation framework, industry is required to review all scientific data and generate risk assessments for all chemicals it puts on the market, including the monomers and additives used to make plastics. ECHA supports the implementation of REACH and evaluates the safety of chemicals.
  • EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). EFSA gives science-based opinions on the monomers and additives of plastics that come into contact with food, including packaging, kitchenware, food and drink containers.
  • EU Commission SCHEER (Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks). SCHEER gives science-based opinions on monomers and additives of plastics that can be found in medical devices, instruments and premises.
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Exploratory study on cultured brain cells: injection of high-doses of pure arsenic, in order to evaluate the impact of a rice-based diet on neurodevelopment (rice naturally contains traces of arsenic).

Part.3 - How the EU ensures the safety of plastics

04.

When it comes to better understanding the fate and the effects of a given chemical on the body, there are generally three kinds of scientific studies : Exploratory studies, regulatory studies, and epidemiological studies.

Research on emerging questions that haven’t been studied yet, e.g. clarifying pathways (absorption, metabolism, excretion) or developing new predictive test methods.

Their goal is not to determine if a product is safe under real life conditions, but to fill a knowledge gap in science.

These are called EXPLORATORY STUDIES.

Often, these experiments are conducted to highlight effects in specific situations which are not necessarily reflective of the actual conditions of use by humans.

For example, isolated cells, tissues or animals, are exposed to various doses, for very long periods, or by direct intravenous injection, which never happens in real life.

The limitations of exploratory studies are usually known, as they can be drawn from the publication itself : unrealistic protocols, low statistical power (lack of controlled factors, small number of samples or data…), need for replication of the study…

04. What studies are behind the regulations?

04.

When it comes to better understanding the fate and the effects of a given chemical on the body, there are generally three kinds of scientific studies : Exploratory studies, regulatory studies, and epidemiological studies.

Research on emerging questions that haven’t been studied yet, e.g. clarifying pathways (absorption, metabolism, excretion) or developing new predictive test methods.

Their goal is not to determine if a product is safe under real life conditions, but to fill a knowledge gap in science.

These are called EXPLORATORY STUDIES.

Often, these experiments are conducted to highlight effects in specific situations which are not necessarily reflective of the actual conditions of use by humans.

For example, isolated cells, tissues or animals, are exposed to various doses, for very long periods, or by direct intravenous injection, which never happens in real life.

The limitations of exploratory studies are usually known, as they can be drawn from the publication itself : unrealistic protocols, low statistical power (lack of controlled factors, small number of samples or data…), need for replication of the study…

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Regulatory study on 100 rats: controlled randomized trial in order to evaluate the impact of a rice-based diet on neurodevelopment (rice naturally contains traces of arsenic).

On the other hand, there are studies designed to be used to evaluate intrinsic properties of the chemical and to assess under which conditions it may be used safely.

For any chemical to be put on the market, these studies are mandatory for the industry to conduct.

Their goal is to provide calibrated data to the authorities in order to determine if this substance can, or cannot, be safely put on the market.

These are called REGULATORY STUDIES.

They represent large investments, since:

  • Their design must be compliant with strict, robust, controlled, official* protocols of research.
    For example, this means gathering a sufficient amount of data (on multiple models, on numerous individuals and samples) in order to minimize the possibility of errors.
  • They must be conducted in laboratories respecting official guidelines called Good Laboratory Practices.
    For example, this implies a highly controlled environment (hygiene, physical constraints, duration …), explicit statistical analysis of the data and documentation requirements, in order to be able to reproduce the experiment.

Based on their review, a substance can be deemed safe, or authorities can require more tests to be performed.

*: calibrated according to international independent scientific bodies (ex : OECD).

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Epidemiological study on 8000 people in order to evaluate the impact of a rice-based diet (rice naturally contains traces of arsenic) on neurodevelopment.

Finally, there are studies that compare two groups of humans: one has been – or still is – exposed to a substance (“exposed” group), but not the other (“control” group).

Over time, scientists gather data on these two groups (health status, exposure data, personal data, etc.), and compare them to determine the health impact of being exposed to the substance.

These are called EPIDEMIOLOGICAL STUDIES.

NB: In the end, a single epidemiological study can never tell if a phenomenon A is actually causing an effect B. It only points out potential
correlations
between those events.

For example: In Miami beach in summer, ice cream sales rise, and so does the rate of accidental drowning. The correlation between those events doesn’t necessarily mean there is an actual causation.

In order to prove actual causation, you would need to understand the biological mechanisms through which A causes B (with exploratory studies, for example), and then confirm them with several regulatory-grade studies, including epidemiological research when relevant.

05.

Part.3 - How the EU ensures the safety of plastics

05.

The weight of evidence is critical for decision making

Evaluating the safety of a substance takes a lot of time and resources: European authorities base their opinions on the entire scientific data available up-to-date, sometimes among thousands of different epidemiological, exploratory and regulatory studies!

Authorities systematically filter and rank all these studies depending on:

  • Their quality vs. official laboratory requirements,
  • Their reproducibility,
  • Their relevance for human health,
  • How their results contradict or fit with all the other available studies…

This process is called the weight of evidence approach.

For specific uses, like food contact materials, if a substance is evaluated as safe, authorities may authorise it, under specific terms and conditions. That is until it is re-evaluated, taking into account the most recent data available.

06.

Part.3 - How the EU ensures the safety of plastics

06.

Not a day goes by without a press article, a TV show or a social network publication reporting on a new study questioning the safety of an officially approved product.

This is easily understandable:

  • A lot of news is based on single exploratory or epidemiological studies, without explaining the limitations of such specific works, nor putting their results into perspective with all other available data.
  • Academic research teams tend to only publish studies showing effects. This phenomenon is called publication bias, and is linked to the process of research funding and allowance of grants.

For example, observing effects on animals exposed to doses over 10000 times higher than real life exposure should not be considered as a direct proof of the existence of a risk for humans.

Consumers wonder about the safety of chemicals in products because they mostly are confronted with articles drawing conclusions about single studies which do not reflect the entire scientific knowledge.

There is an essential rule in science: a single recently-published study does not eclipse the weight of the already existing evidence.

06. Why do we see so many contradictory studies

06.

Not a day goes by without a press article, a TV show or a social network publication reporting on a new study questioning the safety of an officially approved product.

This is easily understandable:

  • A lot of news is based on single exploratory or epidemiological studies, without explaining the limitations of such specific works, nor putting their results into perspective with all other available data.
  • Academic research teams tend to only publish studies showing effects. This phenomenon is called publication bias, and is linked to the process of research funding and allowance of grants.

For example, observing effects on animals exposed to doses over 10000 times higher than real life exposure should not be considered as a direct proof of the existence of a risk for humans.

Consumers wonder about the safety of chemicals in products because they mostly are confronted with articles drawing conclusions about single studies which do not reflect the entire scientific knowledge.

There is an essential rule in science: a single recently-published study does not eclipse the weight of the already existing evidence.

01.
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Detection devices for chemicals have become so powerful that they could virtually detect 1 single grain of corn in a 20 000km-long cargo train full of wheat !

Part.4 - Should we worry about our health

01.

Today we can spot the tiniest traces

Consumers realize they are exposed to chemicals, and often ask themselves if this may pose a risk to their health.

Most concerns arise from the unprecedented ability of science to detect the presence of these substances in food, water, atmosphere, or in biological matrices such as hair, urine or blood.

We are now able to detect even the tiniest quantities of almost everything. The fact that a substance is detected does not mean that an actual health concern exists.

02. +
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Part.4 - Should we worry about our health

02.

The hazard of a natural phenomenon, organism, event, chemical or product is its intrinsic capacity to harm the human body. A hazard becomes a risk only if we are exposed to it at a sufficient level. A lion represents a deadly hazard, but there is no risk if it is in a cage.

In the case of a chemical substance, it is therefore crucial to understand its potential effects on our body -the hazard- and at what level of exposure this hazard becomes a significant risk.

The risk is the probability of any hazard to actually cause adverse effects in real life conditions.

For a chemical, the risk may vary according to:

  • The hazard profile* of the substance,
  • The way we are exposed to this hazard: skin contact, ingestion, inhalation…
  • The dose we are actually exposed to,
  • The duration (or recurrence) of exposure,
  • The periods in our lives when we are more vulnerable to such hazard (pregnancy, foetal life, old age).

* e.g. potency of the substance, severity and reversibility of effects, capacity of the body to neutralize the substance or not…

02. Hazard, risk, what is the difference?

02.

The hazard of a natural phenomenon, organism, event, chemical or product is its intrinsic capacity to harm the human body. A hazard becomes a risk only if we are exposed to it at a sufficient level. A lion represents a deadly hazard, but there is no risk if it is in a cage.

In the case of a chemical substance, it is therefore crucial to understand its potential effects on our body -the hazard- and at what level of exposure this hazard becomes a significant risk.

The risk is the probability of any hazard to actually cause adverse effects in real life conditions.

For a chemical, the risk may vary according to:

  • The hazard profile* of the substance,
  • The way we are exposed to this hazard: skin contact, ingestion, inhalation…
  • The dose we are actually exposed to,
  • The duration (or recurrence) of exposure,
  • The periods in our lives when we are more vulnerable to such hazard (pregnancy, foetal life, old age).

* e.g. potency of the substance, severity and reversibility of effects, capacity of the body to neutralize the substance or not…

03.
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Carcinogenic = increases the risk of developing cancer

Mutagen = increases the frequency of DNA mutations

Neurotoxic = Can damage the structure or functions of the nervous system.

Phytohormones = natural chemicals that regulate e.g. plant growth

Estrogenic activity = simulates the action of female sexual hormones

Part.4 - Should we worry about our health

03.

Everything is potentially hazardous

Although life always bears elements of risk, the zero-risk approach has become increasingly popular, leading policy makers in Europe to adopt more regulations on chemicals (including for plastic materials) based only on the hazard properties of those substances, out of “precaution”.

By stretching the precautionary principle, everything could be considered as potentially harmful, be it man-made or natural.

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Busses are definitely useful: effortlessly and in no time they can carry a lot of people from one point to another, with a much lower environmental impact than individual vehicles.

But accidents with busses involve around 30 000 people every year in Europe (Source : European Commission Statistics, 2015 data).

So should all busses be banned ?

→ No. We need risk management, in the form of vehicle safety and traffic enforcement, as well as speed limits.

Part.4 - Should we worry about our health

04.

Everything can represent a hazard. However, there is no need to deprive ourselves of highly useful products in the name of “precaution”.

Originally the precautionary principle was meant to be a principle of action to be used by policymakers to require more information in order to clarify uncertainty.
However, there is currently a growing tendency to resort to precaution only to call for restrictions or bans.

Our society has created safety barriers – regulations – to protect us and guarantee that the risks that we are exposed to are under control and no cause for concern: we all rely on a risk-based approach.

04. No need to ban all chemicals, let's regulate

04.

Everything can represent a hazard. However, there is no need to deprive ourselves of highly useful products in the name of “precaution”.

Originally the precautionary principle was meant to be a principle of action to be used by policymakers to require more information in order to clarify uncertainty.
However, there is currently a growing tendency to resort to precaution only to call for restrictions or bans.

Our society has created safety barriers – regulations – to protect us and guarantee that the risks that we are exposed to are under control and no cause for concern: we all rely on a risk-based approach.

Part.4 - Should we worry about our health

05.

We, as a society, need the same risk-based approach for plastic products.

Their constituents are trapped in the plastic matrix and only tiny traces of some chemical constituents can migrate from the end products. Because this migration is strictly regulated for sensitive applications, the associated potential health risks, if any, are marginal and well under control.

A hazard-based approach would be too simplistic:

  • Not making use of all the available scientific data, e.g. actual population exposure,
  • Eventually leading to ban highly beneficial products and applications,
  • Ignoring which performance is lost when replacing chemicals.
    Especially when less scientific knowledge is available on alternative chemicals, that often cannot fully match the set of performances of the original ones.

Authorities should keep their risk-based approach:

  • Building scientific knowledge about the health hazards of these substances
  • Defining the population’s exposure to these substances, especially for vulnerable populations
  • Determining if this exposure is acceptable from a public health perspective.
  • Adopting specific measures to ensure the safe use of substances in intended conditions, e.g. setting specific migration limits in sensitive applications, such as food packaging, medical devices and toys..

05. The need for a risk-based approach

05.

We, as a society, need the same risk-based approach for plastic products.

Their constituents are trapped in the plastic matrix and only tiny traces of some chemical constituents can migrate from the end products. Because this migration is strictly regulated for sensitive applications, the associated potential health risks, if any, are marginal and well under control.

A hazard-based approach would be too simplistic:

  • Not making use of all the available scientific data, e.g. actual population exposure,
  • Eventually leading to ban highly beneficial products and applications,
  • Ignoring which performance is lost when replacing chemicals.
    Especially when less scientific knowledge is available on alternative chemicals, that often cannot fully match the set of performances of the original ones.

Authorities should keep their risk-based approach:

  • Building scientific knowledge about the health hazards of these substances
  • Defining the population’s exposure to these substances, especially for vulnerable populations
  • Determining if this exposure is acceptable from a public health perspective.
  • Adopting specific measures to ensure the safe use of substances in intended conditions, e.g. setting specific migration limits in sensitive applications, such as food packaging, medical devices and toys..
01.
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Metal: Plastic materials are now used in the production of safe, robust, yet lighter containers, including buckets, vehicle parts, pipes, etc.

Latex: Resin-based materials have now replaced natural rubber in electrical insulation, tires, water pipe seals, brake pads, etc.

Silk, cotton and wool: Nylon TM replaced silk in WWII, allowing for the industrial production of parachutes. Nowadays, all kinds of plastic fibers allow for more affordable and technical clothes.

Leather and furs: Plastic materials and fibers are used in textile industries to produce synthetic leather and fake fur, preventing impacts on wild life and energy expenditures resulting from animal breeding.

Part.5 - Plastics sustainability

01.

Using plastics rather than natural ressources

The very origin of plastics industries was motivated by the need to find alternatives to natural resources so to preserve them.

Today, plastics aren’t just one material, but a large family of materials, each designed to meet specific needs.

02.

Part.5 - Plastics sustainability

02.

When looking for a material with a specific set of properties, plastics often turn out to be the most sustainable option.

For example, 40% of all plastic materials in Europe are used in food packaging. This is because these materials are light, shock resistant, hermetic and inert. While being both easier and more energy efficient to transport than other materials (glass, terracotta, metals, etc.) they preserve food from external contaminants and prevent its early decay. Over the past 50 years, plastics have enabled major breakthroughs in terms of consumer safety, prevention of food waste and overall resource efficiency of the food chain (see how HERE).

Plastics also revolutionized building and transportation materials, replacing wood, metals and stone with safe, robust, yet much lighter, heat retaining and flexible (less breakable) materials, thus drastically decreasing overall energy expenditures and green gas emissions during their use phase.

All in all, replacing all plastics – when feasible – by alternative materials, would mean nearly 3,7 times more materials, which would result in 46% more energy expenditures and a 50% increase in greenhouse gas emissions *.

* See Denkstatt study 2009

See video

02. Plastics often are the most sustainable option

02.

When looking for a material with a specific set of properties, plastics often turn out to be the most sustainable option.

For example, 40% of all plastic materials in Europe are used in food packaging. This is because these materials are light, shock resistant, hermetic and inert. While being both easier and more energy efficient to transport than other materials (glass, terracotta, metals, etc.) they preserve food from external contaminants and prevent its early decay. Over the past 50 years, plastics have enabled major breakthroughs in terms of consumer safety, prevention of food waste and overall resource efficiency of the food chain (see how HERE).

Plastics also revolutionized building and transportation materials, replacing wood, metals and stone with safe, robust, yet much lighter, heat retaining and flexible (less breakable) materials, thus drastically decreasing overall energy expenditures and green gas emissions during their use phase.

All in all, replacing all plastics – when feasible – by alternative materials, would mean nearly 3,7 times more materials, which would result in 46% more energy expenditures and a 50% increase in greenhouse gas emissions *.

* See Denkstatt study 2009

See video

03.
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Light, shock proof, hygienic and overall reusable and recyclable, plastic drinking bottles are the most sustainable choice to carry water when doing sports.

Part.5 - Plastics sustainability

03.

End-of-life plastics are too valuable to be thrown away

Once they’ve served their lives as products, plastics are still highly valuable resources and should not simply be thrown away (See why HERE).

They can either be reused or recycled into new products or chemical raw materials.
When this is not feasible or sustainable, they can be recovered in the form of heat or electricity, as a substitute to virgin fuels.

See Plastics Second life.

To make the most of plastic waste as a resource and avoid plastics pollution, it is crucial that no plastic waste ends up in the environment. As much as 80% of worldwide plastics marine debris come from land.
There will never be any better prevention of marine litter than to stop littering and to properly collect and recover plastic waste.

Like any other kind of waste, end-of-life plastics first belong to the bin where they can start a new life.

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Furthermore, polyethylene melts around 110°C, therefore its recycling into reusable pellets is more energy-efficient than the recycling of aluminium or glass.

Part.5 - Plastics sustainability

04.

As secondary materials, or alternative energy feedstocks, plastics have a major role to play in the circular economy – especially when considering the low energy impact of their recycling when compared to other materials.

However, to improve the circularity of plastics, it is essential to make sure that more plastic waste is recovered and doesn’t end up in landfills.

Today, in Europe*, over 30% of plastics are recycled but 27% of plastic waste are still landfilled while more than 40% are energy recovered.

Packaging is the best performing sector with nearly 41% of recycling and only slightly more than 20% of landfilling.

In early 2017, plastic raw materials producers committed to reach 60% of plastic packaging being recycled by 2030 and to achieve 100% recovery of all end-of-life plastics by 2040**.

* : Plastics the facts 2017
** : Plastics 2030 Voluntary commitment

04. Plastic materials contribute to circular economy

04.

As secondary materials, or alternative energy feedstocks, plastics have a major role to play in the circular economy – especially when considering the low energy impact of their recycling when compared to other materials.

However, to improve the circularity of plastics, it is essential to make sure that more plastic waste is recovered and doesn’t end up in landfills.

Today, in Europe*, over 30% of plastics are recycled but 27% of plastic waste are still landfilled while more than 40% are energy recovered.

Packaging is the best performing sector with nearly 41% of recycling and only slightly more than 20% of landfilling.

In early 2017, plastic raw materials producers committed to reach 60% of plastic packaging being recycled by 2030 and to achieve 100% recovery of all end-of-life plastics by 2040**.

* : Plastics the facts 2017
** : Plastics 2030 Voluntary commitment