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Juana Fernández Rodríguez
Researcher at Biodiversity and Environment Institute of the University of Navarra and professor at School of Sciences of this institution.
The use of plastics has spread worldwide due to the inherent characteristics of the material such as lightness, durability and low cost, among others. In 2019, 370 million tons of plastic were produced in the world, being the production in Europe almost 58 million tons (PasticEurope, 2020). It must be considered that this figure will be much higher in the current balances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although definitive data cannot yet be found.
On the other hand, the Spanish strategy of Economics Circular (EEC) for 2030, is based on a model of responsible production and consumption, based on maintaining the value of products throughout the chain, promoting the minimum generation of waste and the minimum use of subject virgin raw materials. In addition, the European Commission, with the ideas of Economics circular and Zero Waste as flags, promotes the reuse of plastic materials, avoiding single-use materials, together with an efficient recovery of the waste produced, preferably through recycling.
In this context, it is necessary to understand the life cycle of this subject of materials. The process starts with the transformation of raw materials (from virgin or recycled sources) to finished products through different methodologies such as extrusion molding, injection or blow molding, among others. In this part of the product manufacturing, as result of the industrial process, a clean residue of stable and known composition can be generated. This waste from the industrial surplus of the plastics industries is considered to be of the highest quality for the recycling of plastics. The product is then marketed to the consumer market, and at the end of its useful life, it becomes post-consumer waste.
An estimated 29 million tons of post-consumer plastic were generated in Europe in 2018 (PasticEurope, 2020). One of the main characteristics of plastic waste is the variability in its composition and its leave biodegradability. In addition, they can appear combined with other substrates such as organic subject , paper or non-ferrous metals such as aluminum, which makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to recycle. In general, in order to facilitate the recycling process, clean, single-component, mono-plastic materials should be promoted over materials made up of several polymers or components.
In the event that the region does not have a collection and separation circuit for urban plastics and without any alternative treatment subject , they would be destined for landfill. However, following the hierarchy of waste management , the last option should be landfilling due to the serious environmental problems it entails, such as gaseous pollutant emissions, occupation of space, loss of biodiversity, landscape impact and social conflicts, among many others.
In any case, the reuse of plastics is encouraged as a priority option, followed by recycling. Depending on the collection systems in place, plastics are separated at source, with further separation in an industrial plant, and recycled, if appropriate, into new materials. One of the main problems in waste separation plants is the different sizes that can be present in this subject of materials. The bulky materials are separated at the beginning of the process, with the smaller plastic materials remaining in the waste stream until the end of the process.
In one of the final stages of urban waste separation, the remainder fraction is obtained, whose recycling is not considered viable and goes to landfill. Many small-sized plastics end up in the rest fraction, due to the limited efficiency in the separation process, so their destination is the landfill, without any recycling option. On the other hand, the fact that smaller plastics have more specific surface area leads to the appearance of microplastics, causing serious environmental problems, especially in aquatic ecosystems.
On May 18 of this year (2021), the Government of Spain submitted to the Spanish Parliament the project Law on Waste and Contaminated Soil with the goal to promote a circular Economics and leave carbon. The document established limitations on single-use plastics, including restrictions on their introduction into the market and consumer information obligations as advanced in the preliminary draft bill published on June 2, 2020. To discourage the consumption of this subject of plastics, the law will establish a tax on this subject of materials.
Among other measures, and according to the draft bill presented, as of July 3, the introduction on the market of the following materials was prohibited if they were made from plastics: cotton swabs (except for materials for sanitary use), cutlery and plates, straws and drink stirrers, sticks for holding balloons (except for industrial use), containers and lids made of expanded polystyrene, etc. The introduction on the market of cosmetics and detergents with the intentional addition of microplastics was also prohibited. On the other hand, the project of law includes requirements of design of the containers such as that the lids and caps must be attached to the main container from 2025. The goal of this measure is to prevent the cap from becoming separated from the container during the transport process and management of the waste. Basically, the aim is to prevent the cap, together with plastic straws and straws, from ending up in the remaining fraction destined for landfill.
If you've recently bought a typical single-serve beverage carton with a straw at the supermarket, you may have noticed that the straw is made of cardboard. Or perhaps you have bought a container of ear swabs and noticed that they are made of cardboard instead of the previous plastic. Now you can better understand the reason for these changes: the current law aims to change our consumption habits in the interest of sustainability.
The measures adopted can be a great boost to environmental conservation, and it is that small gestures make big things happen.