Plastics have become deeply integrated into every corner of the modern life. Cheap, light, flexible, and long-lasting, plastic is ubiquitous in nearly every aspect of the economy and consumer life. People interact with plastics daily, particularly in packaging—the largest application of plastics globally. As more consumers in developing countries are armed with increased spending power, the global demand for plastic will continue to grow, likely doubling in the next 20 years.
It is no secret that alongside the widespread use of plastics is an alarming waste threat. Globally, about 260 million tons of plastics were discarded after use in 2016. Of this waste, 16 percent was collected for recycling, 25 percent was incinerated, and the remaining 59 percent was landfilled, taken to unmanaged dumps, or leaked into nature. Every year, 8 million tons of plastics end up in the oceans – the equivalent of dumping in a garbage truck every minute.
The environmental risks are high. The current public conversation on plastics has recently focused on microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic that end up in nature. The largest share of microplastics is believed to come from fragments of larger objects that have decomposed—for example, a plastic bottle breaking apart in the ocean—along with microbeads and wear and tear from plastics in use, such as particles from tires and textiles. The Arctic Ocean is a sink for microplastics, with most plastics in the Greenland and Barents Sea —and these microplastics have consequences for marine life.
In addition to being a major environmental challenge, plastic waste is also a significant lost opportunity, as the energy and resources spent on producing plastic are largely wasted after just a single use. Packaging is especially likely to leak out of the value chain and into nature, due to its short usage periods, complex design, small size, and low residual value.
Though the plastic-waste challenge is well-known, across the globe, public and private entities are lacking the infrastructure and technology to manage after-use plastics as well as the cultural and regulatory climate to cut down on plastic use, recycle, or end littering. In Denmark, plastic pollution is relatively low, but the country is not shielded from its effects. Denmark and other countries are exposed to plastics pollution transported by ocean currents. Annually, more than 1,000 tons of plastic are collected on the Danish west coast.
Denmark is tasked with meeting the 2025 and 2030 EU recycling obligations for plastics packaging waste, and the country is currently achieving around a third of the required 50% and 55% , respectively. Most Danish plastics waste is incinerated—57 percent of Denmark’s plastics waste is burned for heating and energy, 18 percentage points above the EU average. Only 13 percent of all plastics waste are recycled in Denmark, while an additional 28 percent is exported for recycling, and the last 2 percent is landfilled. There are clear and significant opportunities to increase recycling and reconsider the continued plastics incineration in Denmark, as incineration is at odds both with a circular economy concept and the goal of transforming Denmark into a low CO2 emission society by 2050. The initial steps on changing our current use of plastics have already been taken in Denmark, as the Danish government put forward the first Danish strategy on plastics in December 2018. The strategy lays out 27 initiatives that supports a more circular use of plastics and elimination of plastics pollution in Denmark.
Globally, organizations are addressing the plastic-waste challenge by putting forth the concept of a new plastics economy, in which they rethink the role of plastics in society. This ambitious vision includes research and innovation aimed at smarter use, full recycling of all consumer and industrial plastics, development of sustainable plastics, and the elimination of pollution from plastics in use. Turning this vision into reality implies research, innovation, and business opportunities that stakeholders in Denmark can take advantage of, positioning the country as a frontrunner in the new plastics economy. There are clear benefits: Capturing the full economic potential of our plastics waste stream could save Denmark over DKK 1.6 billion a year in saved costs from importing virgin plastics rather than recycling domestic plastics waste. Additionally, Denmark would benefit economically from cutting the environmental costs of pollution and creating value from new technology and newly-created jobs.
To resolve these challenges, governments, businesses and the broader community of participants in the plastics economy must first close gaps in their knowledge of the long-term effects of plastics. For example, we do not fully understand the impact of plastics in the environment on both animals and humans, including how toxic microplastics are to biological systems and organisms. We also have an incomplete picture of the technical and economic potential of recycling technologies and a limited understanding of how to influence sorting and littering. It is also crucial for these stakeholders to work together. Academics, industry leaders, and regulators can jointly define a research and innovation agenda that will close those knowledge gaps. Together, they can also identify necessary regulatory changes and create a schedule for implementing current and future regulations. There are both medium- and long-term changes Denmark can make. In the medium term, Denmark has to meet the EU 2030 targets by making use of the innovation potential within production, use, sorting, collection, and recycling of plastics and move toward developing national waste collection criteria and standards. In the long term, Denmark can support the creation of a functioning market for recycled plastics and sustainable plastics.
We hope our findings aid in the effort to chart a new, less wasteful course for Denmark and the world. By moving in this direction, we envision a future in which plastics can again become a solution to problems rather than a cause of them.