Plastics

Consumption of plastics is increasing, and as a result more and more plastic waste is being created. The public authorities, together with plastics manufacturers, the waste management sector and retailers, are conducting a review of which options for recycling and disposal are ecologically and economically sound. Plastic waste recycling should deliver ecological added value and be financially viable. Plastics do not belong in the environment!  

Kunststoffe schmal
© Amanda Finger, BAFU

Every year, around one million tonnes of plastics are used in Switzerland – this corresponds to 125 kilos per capita (reference year 2010). Around 250,000 tonnes are made into durable products (e.g. plastic window frames) and remain in use for a fairly long period. Every year, around 780,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated, more than 80% of which (around 650,000 tonnes) is used for energy recovery in incinerators and over 6% in cement factories. Around 80,000 tonnes is recycled. In contrast to many other countries, Switzerland has not used landfill sites for combustible waste since the year 2000. Therefore, all plastic waste must be recycled or incinerated in an environmentally compatible manner. However, closing the loop on material life cycles still offers potential for optimisation in the recycling of plastics.

Ecological assessment

Because of their versatility, plastics are used in a very wide variety of products (clothing, packaging, vehicles etc.). On the one hand, plastics are to be found in very long-lived applications (e.g. construction materials, automotive manufacturing). On the other, they are used for short-lived products which are disposed of immediately after a single use (e.g. takeaway packaging or plastic cutlery).

The question often arises in product manufacturing as to whether plastics or alternative materials should be used. The decision should be based on life cycle assessments (LCAs), which consider a product’s environmental impact throughout its entire lifespan. Contrary to popular perception, plastics are often valuable and efficient materials from the point of view of the LCA, for example plastic envelopes for newspapers and magazines tend to have less of an impact on the environment than paper ones.

The FOEN promotes the circular economy. To enhance closing the loop on product life cycles, it is important to address disposal issues when a product is manufactured. Design for Recycling and Eco-design are just two key terms here. Waste avoidance is another important topic, because the most environmentally friendly waste never arises in the first place. 

«Bioplastics»

Most plastics are based on fossil resources such as petroleum, coal or natural gas. “Bio-based” plastics, in contrast, are made from renewable resources such as corn, wheat or potato starch. Biodegradable plastics can be fully degraded by natural micro-organisms and may be either petroleum-based or bio-based. The origin of the material therefore gives no indication as to the degradability of the plastic. For more information see the dossier «Bioplastics – are they degradable?» (available in German, French and Italian) and the «Biodegradable plastics (PDF, 187 kB, 12.05.2020)» factsheet. 

Plastic waste: energy recovery or recycling?

The plastics recycling system includes not only the process of recycling plastics, but also the upstream stages such as the separate collection of plastic waste, its transportation, storage and handling. A viable recycling system not only has to deliver an ecological advantage over the disposal of a product and the manufacture of a new one, but also be economic to run, i.e. there has to be a market for the recycled plastic which is resistant to price fluctuations and the system has to be securely financed.

Whether it is better to recycle plastic waste or to process it for energy recovery in incinerators or cement factories depends on many different factors. Essentially, the recycling of plastics is to be preferred over energy recovery, because with recycling the energy needed to produce the plastic (so-called “grey energy”), is not lost. However, in individual cases the success of the system depends on the quality of the collected material (homogeneity and cleanliness), the efficiency of the collection (well-developed collection points/infrastructure/logistics) and the efficiency of the recycling process as well as the marketability of the recyclate. Generally speaking, the recycling of sorted, uncontaminated plastics adds greater value to the environment than that of mixed collections of plastics, which have to be sorted and cleaned with a considerable effort. From the ecological point of view, therefore, the quality of the collected material must be optimised above all else, whereas forcing increases in the quantities or quotas collected may impair the environmental value of the recycling.

Recycling of plastic waste from trade and industry

Trade, industry and agriculture often consume large quantities of plastics, which as a rule accrue post-use in fairly large quantities, sorted and in some cases uncontaminated (e.g. pallet wrapping films). Such waste is normally well suited for recycling. However, this potential is only being partially exploited at present. For example, just under a quarter of the PE films from trade, industry and agriculture is recycled.
It is primarily the duty of the industry to optimise its waste disposal in order to enhance the closing of life cycle loops. The FOEN can support these efforts by undertaking projects and reviewing measures.

Recycling of plastic waste from households

Many consumers want to recycle their plastic waste and are therefore increasingly collecting their plastic waste separately. In addition to collecting PET beverage bottles, a practice which was established in the 1990s and has been very successful, retailers in Switzerland have in recent years introduced separate collections of PE bottles with tops (e.g. milk and shampoo bottles). The underlying concept is that trade and industry are building effective collection systems on the basis of voluntary measures. Here, too, it is important that the collected plastic waste is to a large part recycled.

There are also multiple privately-run providers of mixed plastic collections from private households and small businesses in Switzerland. With most of these collections, only around half of the plastics collected in the same collection flow (e.g. in one collection bag) can be recycled, although the recycling rate can vary widely. This is due to the enormous heterogeneity of plastics on the one hand and the very wide variety of additives on the other. There is no recycling process covering all these different collected plastics, nor is recycling always worthwhile for technical or economic reasons. And/or there may not be a worthwhile market. On the other hand, foreign substances in the collection and high levels of contaminants in the plastics collected reduce the volume that can be recycled and the quality of the recyclate. This implies that the processing incurs very high costs for energy, water and chemicals.

The conditions for eco-efficient collections of plastic waste from private households are set out in the joint Views and Recommendations (available in German, French and Italian) of the FOEN, the cantons (Cercle Déchets) and the cities, towns and villages (Schweizerischer Verband Kommunale Infrastruktur [Swiss association for municipal infrastructure]).

The cantons are responsible for ensuring an environmentally compatible disposal of residential waste. They generally assign this task to their municipal authorities. Domestic plastic waste is also subject to this monopoly on waste disposal. The separate collections of domestic plastic waste by private providers therefore have to be approved of by the cantons or the municipal authorities. For this purpose, the FOEN has drafted a Model licence agreement for municipal authorities with Explanatory notes (both documents available in German, French and Italian). This model agreement can be used voluntarily by the municipalities for contracts with private service providers.

Outlook

A number of municipal authorities, special-purpose associations and private service providers in Switzerland are testing additional collection and recycling systems, some of which may meet the conditions above.

Apart from that, the recyclability of new plastics is changing due to research and regulations. The Swiss parliament has put forward several initiatives to promote the collection and recycling of plastics (see links). The FOEN is now charged with implementing the initiatives accepted by parliament. For this purpose, the FOEN will demonstrate how more plastics can be recycled in future on the basis of reports and concrete proposals on actions.

Further information

Documents

Project "Kunststoff-Verwertung Schweiz" (PDF, 5 MB, 02.12.2016)Report of modules 1 and 2. Commissioned by the FOEN (available in German)

Project "Kunststoff-Verwertung Schweiz" (PDF, 5 MB, 02.12.2016)Report of modules 3 and 4. Commissioned by the Round-Table on Plastics Recycling under the leadership of the FOEN (available in German including foreword, introductory remarks and summary in French and Italian)

Contact
Last modification 14.05.2020

Top of page

https://www.bafu.admin.ch/content/bafu/en/home/themen/thema-abfall/abfallwegweiser--stichworte-a--z/kunststoffe.html