Plastics

Plastics consumption is increasing, which results in an increase in the amount of plastic waste. The public authorities, along with plastics manufacturers, and the waste and retail industries, are investigating environmentally and financially suitable options for recovery and disposal. The recycling of plastic waste should bring an added ecological value and be financially sustainable.

© Isabelle Baudin, BAFU

Around 1,000,000 tonnes or 125 kg of plastics per capita are consumed in Switzerland per annum (reference year 2010). Approximately 250,000 tonnes of plastics are used to make long-lasting products (e.g. plastic window frames) and are thus put into intermediate storage. About 780,000 tonnes are disposed of as waste, of which over 80% (about 650,000 tonnes) are incinerated, producing energy, and about 6% were used in cement plants as surrogate fuel. Roughly 80,000 tonnes are recycled. In contrast to many other countries, no combustible waste has been landfilled in Switzerland since the year 2000. That means that all plastic waste in Switzerland are either recycled in an environmentally friendly manner or incinerated to produce energy.

Separate collection and recycling

In principle, a separate collection for recycling should be preferred to energy production. For the separate collection of plastics to be worthwhile, however, the following conditions should be considered:

  • environmental benefit in relation to the financial investment
  • established demand for the secondary raw materials (this is a function of the volatile raw materials market)
  • collection, transport, and utilisation costs must be securely funded, because the sale of recovered materials often does not cover the processing costs
  • cleanliness and hygiene
  • purity and homogeneity of the collected material
  • worthwhile quantity and yield
  • clear information to the public about which plastics, or plastic waste should be collected separately
  • well-developed collection points, infrastructure, and logistics

Plastic is not just plastic

There are many types of plastics that are used in a wide range of products. Plastic is an extremely popular, versatile material as it combines many desirable and useful qualities: it is light, pliable, non-conductive, versatile in use, etc. Not all plastic waste is suitable for recycling, plastics are extremely heterogeneous and have different additives.

A separate plastics collection has to focus on a high-quality material recovery process with a high recycling rate. There should be a clearly discernible ecological benefit from a separate plastics collection as compared to disposal of the waste in the garbage bin. For those plastics for which material recovery is not a sensible option, the next best thing is valorisation for use as energy.

A well-functioning collection system for separation already exists for PET beverage containers. This must not be put at risk by a separate plastics collection. New PET bottles can only be manufactured from collected PET bottles if the collection is kept as homogeneous and unmixed as possible. The non-selective collection of PET bottles would reduce the quality of these collected items and make the recycling process more difficult, if not impossible. Companies that recycle PET beverage containers or export them for recycling are required to notify the weight, place, and the type of valorization of the PET beverage bottles to the FOEN. The cycles of materials are therefore transparent.

Information on the collection and recycling of PET drinks bottles:

Collection of plastics from households

The cantons have responsibility for ensuring the environmentally friendly disposal of household waste (monopoly). This task is mostly delegated to the communities by the cantons. Any plastic collections carried out by private operators have to be approved by the cantons authorities or by the communities responsible for the disposal.

The FOEN, the Cercle Déchets of the Cantons and the Organisation for Communal Infrastructure have published a common position and recommendations about the collection of plastics from households:

The Organisation Kommunale Infrastruktur has developed a checklist for communities about introducing a separate plastics collection.

Many consumers would like to have their plastic waste recycled. In collections of different plastic waste from households in the same collection stream (e.g. in the same collection bag) only about half of the plastic can usually be sensibly recycled (the recycling rate can vary strongly). The reasons for this are:

  • Foreign substances and extreme dirtiness of the collected plastics: this reduces the recyclable amount and quality of the recycled material or requires a big investment in energy, water, and detergents.
  • Large variety of different plastic types: there is not always a process for material recovery of all these plastics in the collection, the recycling is not worthwhile for technical or economic reasons, or there is no suitable sales market.

The purpose of a plastics collection is to achieve the highest possible material recovery rate allowed by the state of the art technology. The goal should be that at least 70% of the separately collected plastics are recycled.

Selective plastics collection results in good-quality material and high recycling rates, for example in the case of plastic bottles that consists mainly of polyethylene plastic and their caps (e.g. shampoo bottles or containers for cleaning agents). After processing, the recycled material can be used again in production.

The retail industry in Switzerland proactively offers the selective collection of plastic bottles with their caps from households throughout the country and also finances their collection and recycling. This fits with the notion of voluntary measures for an effective collection system development from trade and industry, which results in environmentally and financially sound recycling. It is also important in this case, that the plastics are mainly recycled.

Plastics from trade and industry

In contrast to the very heterogeneous plastic waste that results from households, the plastic waste from trade and industry is usually in larger quantities, is mostly homogenous (same type of plastic), and may be unsoiled (e.g. packaging from palettes). It is therefore often better for recycling.

Various projects exist which promote the recycling of stretch wrap from industry and commerce as well as agriculture. There are also many different possibilities for dealing with plastic waste from the building sector.

Role of the Confederation

The FOEN is the competence centre for issues relating to the ecology of recycling and the recovery of plastic waste. The FOEN makes recommendations and gives support on queries relating to the recovery of waste.

In November 2017 the FOEN, in conjunction with the Cercle Déchets of the Cantons and the Organisation for Communal Infrastructure, organised the conference “Plastic waste from households: What does the future look like?” on the topic of plastics collections and recycling. The presentations and documents of the conference can be found here:

Studies 

Project «Plastics recycling in Switzerland» (PDF, 1 MB, 01.03.2011)(in German) Report Modules 1 and 2. Commissioned by the FOEN

Projekt "Kunststoff-Verwertung Schweiz" (PDF, 5 MB, 02.12.2016)(in German, incl. summary in French and Italian) Bericht Module 3 + 4. Im Auftrag des Runden Tischs Kunststoff unter der Leitung des BAFU mit Stellungnahmen der Mitglieder des Projektausschusses Runder Tisch Kunststoff

KuRVe Project: Plastics Recycling and Recovery (July 2017) / An economic-environmental analysis of collection and recovery systems for plastics from households in Switzerland

The KuRVe study was carried out by the company Carbotech AG and the university institute UMTEC on behalf of eight cantons, several different organisations and the Federal Office of the Environment FOEN.

The study shows that the collection of plastics from households offers low cost-benefit efficiency when compared to the collection of PET beverage bottles. The relatively low ecological benefit is outweighed by the high costs.

The results of the KuRVe study serve as a solid basis for further discussions and political decisions relating to any new separate collections of plastic waste from households.

Further information

Contact
Last modification 23.02.2018

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