'Plastic cycle is a social responsibility'

2 minutes
Report of interactive CPNL workshop Design & Systems Integration
by Pierre Gielen


What does it mean when a snack manufacturer reports in a recent press release that its potato chip bags will now be 25% recycled plastic? A breakthrough in the recycling and processing of multilayer film for food packaging? Not for those who also read the fine print: "We apply recycled plastic as it becomes available.

Marketers are apparently in a hurry to flaunt circularity. But before recyclate can replace a substantial part of the current virgin plastics, especially in food, major changes are needed. Starting at the front end, with the collection, measurement and sharing of knowledge and information to make plastics more reusable and sustainable. That was the topic of the CPNL workshop Design & Systems Integration held in The Hague on April 18.

With about 60 participants, the entire Dutch circular plastics chain was represented there, from researchers to polymer producers and from recyclers and sorters to brand owners. When chairman of the day Dirk Koppenol kicked off the workshop with a poll on the feasibility of the Cabinet goal, 100% circularity by 2050, the cautious conclusion was, "There is hope.


In the fall of 2024, CPNL will open a new call (grant round) for research projects and showcases. Anyone who would like to participate in this and contribute to the further development of the program can contact Susanne Waaijers or Roland ten Klooster.

Design choices

The journey to circularity in the plastics chain begins with material selection and packaging design. Creating sustainable packaging is not an end in itself, according to Professor Roland ten Klooster, CPNL program manager. "The goal is to bring a product sustainably to the user. If you can do that without packaging, then that is the most sustainable option. If you do need packaging, choose a good one and use it properly." Numerous aspects come into play when choosing a packaging material, making the selection process opaque. As the example with the chip bags shows, the marketing department within companies often influences it. For example, less sustainable packaging with a matte coating is chosen that looks and feels "natural" to consumers like paper. Those same consumers are afterwards faced with the decision of how to dispose of the packaging. That often goes wrong, which sometimes puts the problem on sorters. Then there is the question of whether it makes sense to collect materials for which there is no proper recycling, or too little capacity.

Polystyrene packaging, for example, is incinerated because the material streams in the Netherlands are too small to make recycling profitable. And if a polymer is readily available and easy to recycle, such as PET, all sorts of other issues come into play that affect its recyclability, such as the use of stickers, glue, ink, etc. All this makes creating sustainable packaging solutions complex, and there is therefore a need to develop methods and decision models that help make informed choices.

The question is further whether consumers should be expected to be able to choose the most sustainably packaged product at the store. During a discussion on this topic, it appears that workshop participants are more likely to place the responsibility for packaging products sustainably on the industry. This should be enshrined in government regulation so that the end user does not have to think about it at the store. Separation of waste should also be made easier.

One participant suggested that consumers are not unwilling. They would certainly be willing to return products separately if it is clear that they have a high residual value after use. Another participant points out that this willingness is also culturally determined. In Japan, for example, 35 types of waste are collected separately, requiring a 300-page manual. That is extreme, but even Dutch consumers should eventually be able to do better waste separation.

Circular cheese packaging

One producer that has been striving for more circular packaging for years is the dairy cooperative Friesland-Campina. By 2030, the company wants all of its packaging to be recyclable and by 2050, it aims for a completely climate-neutral operation. Senior Packaging Development Manager Louis van den Dobbelsteen discussed the company's experiences in making its cheese packaging more sustainable during the workshop. This involves 3.4 million kilograms of plastic every year. Friesland-Campina has been working on reducing this amount of plastic since 2011, the first step being to make the foils thinner, then making the foils from monomaterials (PP), then switching to PET. Since then, various adjustments have led to a clean PET stream that can be efficiently recycled. Ultimately, this should lead to a fully rPET chain, without depending on material from other chains. That goal is expected to be achieved in 2025. Friesland Campina has not applied for a patent on solutions it has developed and is sharing the knowledge with other producers. "Because the more clean PET packaging is in circulation, the better the recycling is, the sooner specific PET tray streams will come on the market." Van den Dobbelsteen has another important piece of advice: "If you make a packaging theoretically recyclable, do check the whole chain. Go test it at sorters and recyclers and see what is actually done with your material in practice. Materials that are not yet sorted out and recycled in the Netherlands are not truly circular."

Scoping study

Without contact with the chain, circularity is not possible for CPNL either. Susanne Waaijers, systems integration program manager for CPNL emphasized that the organization therefore finds it important to know what is currently on the minds of parties in the field. To register that, researchers Judith Kessens and Quirine Cohen of TNO Circular Plastics were deployed. They conducted a scoping study in which 45 stakeholders from different sectors were interviewed about their needs and the information systems available to share knowledge and data. These included the themes of (1) economy, (2) social, community and health, (3) climate and environment, (4) technology, (5) circularity and (6) organization and community. Based on nearly a thousand collected statements, several topics were identified for further analysis.

During the workshop, participants voted on three topics they consider most important. In first place ends a concrete vision, because, "That's where everything starts. Without vision and ambition you can't make good laws and regulations at all, nor is there a good investment climate." The government should take on a "coaching role" and set the direction in a roadmap, a dot on the horizon, according to one of the discussion participants.
Another participant noted that the transition to circular plastics requires large investments that are only possible when it is clear what the business case looks like in the long term. "We are in a kind of stranglehold. Everyone is waiting for the right conditions. Everyone is researching and trying something, but to really make a big impact, really more is needed than is happening now."

It was also added from the audience that (in)certainties surrounding licensing affect the willingness to invest. "People are indeed looking for certain certainties for the future. This should certainly be well established by governments in laws and regulations. Only then can you provide an economic incentive to drive innovations."
The CPNL program can work toward shared vision and serve as an example and exploration with case studies, but topics that have to do with the tasks of government, such as legislation, are not included. The TNO researchers will share advice and recommendations based on their research report. That will be completed and delivered before the summer of 2024.

Mapping the chain

CPNL's program line includes System Integration in addition to Design. Program manager Susanne Waaijers explains, "We want to fully map the plastics chain in the Netherlands, with insight into the material flows in and out of the country and the various applications. A lot is still unclear about these aspects, partly because the information is fragmented." A knowledge platform to be set up where stakeholders can join will make it possible to collect that information centrally. "Think of a landing site with scenarios and tools that are very practical to use for different user groups. Where you can use parameters and formulas to calculate things for different chains, material flows and applications." The resulting knowledge should be accessible to everyone and practical for different user groups, such as designers and policy makers. "The ideal outcome is that after eight years of implementing the program, there is a clear understanding of the different value chains, applications and materials, and the implications of the transition to a circular economy."

Sharing information

Anyone active in the plastics chain can join the consortium around the knowledge platform and provide (anonymized) information. This benefits the parties in several ways. First, up-to-date information from multiple companies provides insight into the current situation in the chain. But the platform can also help consortium members comply with legal requirements that are currently still partly in the pipeline, for example the digital product passports (from the EU Ecodesign Directive)and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), says Susanne Waaijers. "The CSRD is currently being rolled out and it has quite a few concrete information and reporting requirements. For example, you have to estimate how much microplastics emissions come off your material, not only do it for your own place in the chain, but also upstream and downstream. That's not nothing. It would be nice if we could agree on a format for this kind of information. That way, as a participating company, you can see how you compare to the sector or the market, while immediately being ready for your reporting obligations."

Two tracks

One consortium already advanced in systems integration is Syschemiq. This Horizon Europe program connects 21 partners from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany and focuses on the opportunities for a Circular Plastics Economy in the Rhine-Meuse region. Syschemiq aims to prevent waste and replace virgin plastics with recycled plastics, through new design rules, the development of a new line for waste collection and sorting, and new technologies for mechanical and chemical recycling.

Transitions, however, do not take place in a vacuum. They are not only about operational-technical aspects of recycling, but also consider social, economic and institutional aspects. Through a so-called Dual Track Governance approach, according to Diepenmaat, it is necessary to work toward an "even but skew playing field favoring sustainability": a more or less level playing field, tending toward sustainability. This can be achieved through incentives and regulations, but also through cooperation and knowledge sharing among those involved. Diepenmaat sees no point in placing responsibility primarily on producers, as suggested earlier in the discussion. Instead, there should be an "Extended Societal Responsibility. This means that, in addition to producers, consumers, governments and other actors would also become responsible for the circular economy.
"Business is eager to move faster," says Diepenmaat. "Therefore, the worst developed part of the Dual Track is not the entrepreneurial part, but the social and institutional part. Those we want to steer, toward sustainability."

For this purpose, a workflow was developed that is also applicable to CPNL, with generic steps that can be easily replicated:
1. Scoping study (identify the relevant system and actors involved);
2. Analysis (gather information about the actors, governance characteristics and transition dynamics);
3. Modeling (integrate the collected information into models to develop packages of measures);
4. Implementation (implement the measures and evaluate the impacts).

What needs to happen as a first step is sharing knowledge about the circular economy and its challenges. There is no simple solution, and there is a need for continuous dialogue and cooperation among all stakeholders. The Design & Systems Integration workshop was a first successful step in this. Anyone who would like to participate and contribute to the further development of the program can contact Susanne Waaijers or Roland ten Klooster.

In the fall of 2024, CPNL will open a new call (grant round) for research projects and showcases. Keep an eye on this website and sign up for the newsletter to not miss a thing!

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