FAQ - Plastics in the environment


1.   Quantities, sources and input into the environment

1.1  How much plastic is consumed annually in Switzerland?

Around one million tonnes of plastics are used in Switzerland annually. Approximately 780,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in Switzerland every year. Of this, more than half had been used for less than a year, e.g. as packaging. More than 80% (around 650,000 tonnes) is collected with household refuse and incinerated. In contrast, over one sixth is collected separately, of which 80,000 tonnes are recycled and the non-recyclable share is processed in incinerators and cement factories.
The reference year for these figures is 2010, however, the FOEN assumes that their proportions have remained roughly the same.

1.2  What amounts of plastics are released into the environment in Switzerland every year?

Based on the literature review which EBP conducted on the FOEN's behalf and other recently published studies (Model calculation plastics, Model calculation tyre abrasion), the FOEN estimates that around 14,000 tonnes of plastics (macro- and microplastics) enter the environment every year. The largest proportion of these plastics which are released into soil and water comes from tyre abrasion (around 8,000 tonnes), followed by littering (around 2,700 tonnes) and other sources.

1.3  What are the most important sources of environmental pollution caused by plastics in Switzerland?

The most significant sources of plastics in the Swiss environment are:

  • Tyre abrasion;
  • Littering;
  • Fragments of plastic materials, e.g. films from the construction industry and agriculture;
  • Plastics in biowaste collections.

Macroplastics (particles larger than 5mm and plastic waste) enter the environment mainly through inappropriate disposal (e.g. littering). Microplastics (particles smaller than 5mm), in contrast, are mainly released into the environment through the abrasion and degradation of plastic products (e.g. tyre abrasion). Macroplastics decompose into microplastics over time. The enormous number of microplastic particles is problematic for the environment, since they are barely visible and are very difficult to remove from the environment.

1.4  What is the extent of environmental pollution by plastics in Switze  and?

Plastic waste is disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner in Switzerland due to the country’s well-functioning waste management system. Plastic waste is either processed thermally in incinerators or cement factories or recycled. Thanks to the cleaning measures in public spaces (e.g. street cleaning) and waste water treatment plants, a large proportion of plastics can be removed and does not enter the environment.

In addition to littering, the abrasion and degradation of plastic products (e.g. tyre abrasion) and the gradual decomposition of macroplastics into microplastics are the main problems of environmental pollution by plastics.

According to current estimates, around 14,000 tonnes of plastics enter the Swiss environment every year. However, plastics do not decompose in the environment, or do so only over a very long period. They therefore accumulate in the environment. Furthermore, the long-term effects of exposure to plastics – microplastics in particular – on living organisms is not yet known. We therefore apply the precautionary principle: plastics do not belong in the environment and their input must be reduced as far as possible.

1.5  How problematic are drinking straws, disposable cutlery and other short-lived disposable plastic products for the environment?

Despite the well-functioning Swiss waste management system, short-lived disposable plastic products reach the environment as a result of littering, or due to an overflow from waste water treatment plants during heavy rainfall events (combined sewer overflows CSO), and thus bypass the established treatment measures.

If disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner (e.g. not disposing of cotton buds in the toilet, not thoughtlessly leaving waste lying around), short-lived disposable products are not directly problematic for the environment. Nevertheless, resources and energy are used for the manufacture and disposal of these products – for only a very short period of use. With regard to short-lived disposable plastic products, the FOEN is of the opinion that these products should not be offered on the shelves anymore when ecologically appropriate alternative products exist. The retail trade should in this respect act under its own responsibility.

1.6  How problematic are microplastics that are deliberately added to products, e.g. in cosmetics?

Microplastics are deliberately added to certain products, for example cleaning agents and cosmetics (e.g. toothpaste or exfoliants). Such microplastics enter the waste water when the products are used and can therefore also reach surface waters. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposes that microplastic particles added deliberately to products should be restricted in the EU. The European Commission is to examine whether the conditions for a restriction are met. The FOEN is monitoring these developments, because microplastics deliberately added to products also lead to a significant amount reaching surface waters in Switzerland.

1.7  What are the risks to humans and animals?

Many different types of plastic enter the environment. It is an undisputed fact that plastics pollute the environment because of their persistence. Nevertheless, there is a major need for research to improve the data situation, so that the responsible agencies can better assess the risks to humans and animals.

Plastic items on the ground or floating may injure animals, e.g. if they become entangled in fishing nets, or if they swallow plastics causing intestinal damage. If an animal swallows too much plastic, this can also make it feel satiated and it may starve.

Microplastics are absorbed into the organism via food or breathing and are probably in a large part excreted again. Inflammatory reactions have been observed in earthworms. Harmful effects on other animals cannot be ruled out.

 

1.8  Where are the biggest knowledge gaps of environmental pollution by plastics?

There are major knowledge gaps in three areas: There is a lack of knowledge about the input of plastics into the environment; about the fate, behaviour and degradation of plastics in the environment; about the impact of plastics on living organisms and ecosystems.

Although isolated information already exists in all three areas, it is often subject to major uncertainties and is hard to compare and interpret due to different methodologies and units. Furthermore, very small particles cannot be covered by current methods, this applies to tyre abrasion, for example, which is quantitatively highly significant.

1.9  What ongoing research concerning plastics is being conducted at the FOEN?

Empa (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research) has identified and quantified sources and pathways of seven different types of plastic in the environment in a modelling study commissioned by the FOEN. The environmental concentrations are now being modelled in a follow-up study. In addition to the Empa modelling study, an overview study to estimate the input of tyre abrasion particles into Swiss waters is currently being conducted. The results of the studies serve as an additional basis for the FOEN to develop possible measures to reduce the input of pollution into the environment.

The FOEN has commissioned or is supporting further research projects regarding the update of the figures on plastics consumption, a survey of the waste littered along watercourses and excluding contaminants in recycling.


2.   Mesures

2.1  What has already been done?

A number of established measures is already in place to reduce the input of plastics into the environment. Firstly, Switzerland has a well-functioning waste management system in which plastics that are properly disposed of are channelled into recycling (e.g. PET beverage bottles, PE bottles) or incineration and therefore cannot enter the environment. Secondly, a large proportion of plastics is removed or retained by the measures to clean public spaces (e.g. street cleaning) and the waste water treatment plants.

Measures to actively combat littering play a central role in restricting plastics in the environment (see question 2.2: “How can littering be combated?”).

Another major source of plastics in the environment is the application on farmland of compost and digestate contaminated with plastics which have been included in biowaste collections. To reduce this contamination, a more stringent limit for plastics in compost and digestate was introduced in the Chemical Risk Reduction Ordinance (ORRChem) in 2016 so that fewer plastics would be applied on fields as a result of contaminated compost and digestate used to fertilise and improve soil.

2.2  How can littering be combated?

Despite significant and expensive cleaning efforts, littering, that is, casually throwing away or leaving behind small quantities of residential waste, is a major contributor to plastic pollution in the Swiss environment. The majority of littered waste is collected and properly disposed of by municipal services or private-sector players. However, this incurs high costs and ties up human resources.

The cantons or municipal authorities are primarily responsible for implementing measures to combat littering. They have already implemented measures, with the support of the Confederation and the involvement of private-sector organisations. Littering has to be combated with a variety of different actions, such as having a good waste disposal infrastructure in public spaces, raising awareness or imposing sanctions in the form of fines for littering (see links below). The following measures can be listed as examples: Clean-Up Days or charging a deposit on plastic cups, or less use of disposable tableware at large events.

Zero Littering - Wegweiser für eine müllfreie Umwelt (PDF, 7 MB, 18.10.2018)A guide to a litter-free environment (brochure in German, French and Italian)

2.3  Why are not more plastics being recycled?

Plastic waste recycling has to meet a number of criteria for recycling to deliver an ecological advantage and be economically viable compared to disposing of a product by incineration and the use of primary raw materials – recycling also needs raw materials in the form of energy, water and chemicals and generates costs for collection and transport and for the operation of the recycling plants.

Some criteria for ecologically and economically useful recycling are:

 

  • Ensuring that recycling is financed and organised;
  • Clean, homogeneous collections;
  • Well-developed collection points/infrastructure/logistics;
  • Sorted collections of plastic waste (e.g. PET beverage bottles or PE bottles as a separate collection) so that a high-quality, marketable recyclate is obtained;
  • Ensuring transparency in collection, transport and recycling systems, including their financing.

 

Plastics recycling could develop further in the future. On the one hand, 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. For example, PE bottles with tops (e.g. milk and shampoo bottles) produce high-quality collected materials and high recycling rates. On the other hand, the recyclabiity of new plastics is changing due to research, regulations and initiatives from Switzerland and the EU.

For more information on the collection and recycling of plastics go to Guide to waste: plastics.

2.4  Are more plastics being recycled as a result of mixed plastic collections?

There are 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 a 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 of 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.

2.5  Are biodegradable plastics really degradable/compostable?

It is important to distinguish between bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Bio-based plastics are produced from biomass (e.g. corn starch). However, the raw material is no indicator of how effectively the plastic will degrade, since biodegradable plastics may be either bio-based or fossil-based. Biodegradable plastics are decomposed by natural micro-organisms into water, carbon dioxide and biomass. Often, they can only be recycled within a reasonable period in industrial fermentation or composting plants, since only these plants meet the conditions (e.g. temperature) for full decomposition. Under real environmental conditions, biodegradable plastics decompose over time into microplastics, which are very slow to decompose into their chemical components. In addition, additives are introduced into oxo-degradable plastics which decompose when heated or exposed to sunlight into microplastic particles which, however, virtually do not degrade.

2.6  Why are short-lived disposable plastic products not simply prohibited?

The debate on the prohibition of some short-lived disposable plastic products is in full swing both in Switzerland and in other countries. The EU announced in 2018 in its Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy that short-lived disposable products made of plastic would be markedly reduced or even prohibited, the corresponding directive now has to be implemented within the member states by mid-2021. With regard to short-lived disposable plastic products, the FOEN is of the opinion that these products should not be offered on the shelves anymore when ecologically appropriate alternative products exist.

Short-lived disposable products should not be replaced by ecologically poorer materials. The basis must be a full life cycle assessment of each disposable product.

The FOEN promotes the circular economy and seeks to end the “end-of-pipe” mindset. To hasten the attainment of closed loops for materials, 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.

There are other effective solutions for the reduction of disposable plastic products. Following the introduction of a mandatory charge for disposable plastic carrier bags in the food sector in 2017, the number of these bags in circulation has fallen by 86%. Although this is a small amount as a proportion of the total plastics used in Switzerland, the awareness-raising effect is of major importance. Furthermore, the existing industry agreement is to be extended in future to chargeable reusable plastic carrier bags in the non-food sector.

2.7  What other measures must be implemented to reduce environmental pollution by plastics?

On 14 Mai 2020, the FOEN published the current state of knowledge on environmental pollution by plastics. On the basis of this publication and in the course of processing the large number of initiatives on the topic by the Swiss parliament, the FOEN, together with the industries affected, will propose further measures to reduce environmental pollution by plastics (see question 2.1 “What has already been done?”).

In relation to the accepted postulates of Thorens Goumaz (18.3196) and Munz (18.3496), the FOEN is drafting a report on possible measures to reduce the pollution entering the environment through plastics and to stimulate a circular economy. With the motion 18.3712 “Less plastic waste in waters and soil”, submitted by the National Council's Committee for the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy (ESPEC-N), the Swiss parliament is demanding that the Confederation should, together with the industries affected, examine and take measures to comprehensively and effectively combat environmental pollution caused by plastics, including the main sources of emissions.

In addition, the FOEN is monitoring the various measures proposed by the EU in its Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy and examining their applicability to Switzerland.

The FOEN has also engaged with international bodies. For example, with the “Interest Group Plastics” in the “EPA Network” (European Network of the Heads of Environment Protection Agencies) and the Basel Convention’s international partnership on plastic waste (Plastic Waste Partnership). At the last Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal in May 2019, it was decided to make mixed plastic waste subject to control from 1 January 2021 onwards. In future, all the countries involved (export, transit and import countries) must give their consent to the planned transboundary movements in advance.

2.8  What can I do to reduce environmental pollution by plastic waste?

In general, in order to reduce the environmental pollution caused by plastic waste, consumers should keep to the following cascade: Avoid, reduce, recycle.

For private individuals, avoiding waste by conscious and sustainable purchasing decisions and disposing of waste in an environmentally friendly manner is a crucially important way of preventing plastics from entering the environment.

Disposing of plastics properly means that they do not end up in the environment. Plastics are either recycled or processed thermally in incinerators or cement factories in an environmentally compatible manner.

Littering is one of the main reasons for environmental pollution by plastics in Switzerland. If we dispose of all our waste, including cigarette ends, in waste bins, we will already be making an important contribution to reducing environmental pollution by plastics. Likewise, waste containing plastics should never be flushed down the toilet, since this waste may then bypass the treatment measures; it should be correctly disposed of.

To close the plastics circular economy, it is important to use the separate collections of PET beverage bottles and PE bottles with tops (e.g. milk and shampoo bottles).

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Last modification 07.05.2020

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