Economic meltdown threatens Europe’s war on plastic waste

Plastic recycling at the Extruplas plant in Portugal. Europe produces 26 million tons of plastic waste each year. (Reuters)
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Updated 08 August 2020

Economic meltdown threatens Europe’s war on plastic waste

  • Lower oil prices mean lower virgin plastic prices — and that spells trouble for the recycling industry

OUREM, Portugal: Giving a new life to plastic trash gets Carlos Bento out of bed every morning. But the coronavirus pandemic has seen revenues drop up to 40 percent at Micronipol, the large recycling facility he runs in central Portugal, and it faces an uncertain future.

Micronipol produces recycled polyethylene, the base for plastic bags and bottles. The product is piling up at its warehouses as clients, facing their own economic struggles, shelve their recycling goals. They are opting for cheaper alternatives: non-recycled plastics made from hydrocarbons.
As lockdowns were put in place worldwide, a drop in demand for oil pushed prices to historic lows, making virgin plastics — already becoming cheaper than the recycled equivalent — even more affordable.
“If we are no longer competitive and if we lose cash we have two options: Either someone has to subsidise us so we can keep working or we have to shut down,” said Bento, as he stood near a pile of colorful recycled plastic bales.
Lower virgin plastic prices could spell disaster for the future of European recyclers like Micronipol.
In Europe, virgin polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was over 7 percent, or €60 ($71) per ton, cheaper than the recycled equivalent last month, data from S&P Global Platts showed.
Industry group Plastic Recyclers Europe said firms in most EU member states have signalled their recycling facilities have reduced their operations or closed their lines for at least a few months.
“Without well-functioning and profitable plastics recycling there is no alternative, no environmentally sound option for plastic waste management,” said Antonino Furfari, the group’s managing director. “This waste will be incinerated or dumped.”
Piotr Barczak, senior policy officer for waste at the European Environment Bureau, called for a tax on all virgin plastics to eliminate the price gap.
The impact of the pandemic on recyclers is especially concerning at a time when consumption of plastics is expected to double to 600 million tons per year in the coming two decades, according to a report by Zero Waste Europe NGO. And as countries struggle to cope with the economic impact of the health crisis, fears abound that environmental policies are being left behind.

HIGHLIGHTS

● Virgin plastic cheaper than recycled alternative.
● European plastic recyclers struggling to stay afloat.
● Taxing virgin plastic could help industry survive.

EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius told Reuters in a written interview that while the Commission had received relatively few requests for extensions or exemptions from EU environmental rules due to the pandemic, the crisis had a “significant impact” on countries’ administrative capacities.
The EU is to ban a range of single-use plastic items by 2021, a huge ambition which could now be under threat as more and more consumers and restaurants become more dependent on disposable plastic products due to contagion fears.
Portugal’s Environment Secretary of State Ines dos Santos Costa said her government’s ambition to cut disposable plastic products “still stands,” but the pandemic has transformed models of production and consumption worldwide.
Not far from Portugal’s capital Lisbon, recycling sorting facility Amarsul has raised concerns about the vast amounts of plastic gloves and masks it has been receiving.
“If the habit of using disposables continues, we may take a step back we will have to fix later,” said CEO Sandra Silva, adding that a recycling-based economic model “cannot stop because there is a pandemic.”
Europe generates 26 million tons of plastic waste annually, but less than 30 percent of that is collected for recycling. Experts say existing targets to improve plastic recycling could be in danger of not being met.
Sandra Castro, head of Extruplas firm that makes wooden-like outdoor furniture from plastics it recycles, is hoping the current situation is no more than a temporary bump in the road.
“We need the industry to be able to provide a solution to the waste we produce,” Castro said.
But for Sirpa Pietikainen, Finnish member of the European Parliament, the only way to tackle plastic pollution, which some scientists say is fueling climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, is to produce less waste.
“If you thought the coronavirus crisis was bad for the economy, climate change will be 100 times worse — and then you will not only talk about losing GDP points, you will talk about access to medication, water and food,” she said.
“We really need to act now.”


Bailout will keep Air France-KLM afloat for less than year: CEO

Updated 21 September 2020

Bailout will keep Air France-KLM afloat for less than year: CEO

  • ‘If we base it upon the past few weeks, it is clear that the recovery in traffic will be slower than expected’
  • Governments are coming under pressure to tie airline bailouts to environmental commitments

PARIS: Bailouts provided to Air France-KLM by the French and Dutch governments will keep the airline flying less than a year, its CEO Benjamin Smith said Monday and evoked the possibility of injecting new capital.
In an interview with the French daily l’Opinion, Smith also warned that calls for airlines to contribute more to fight climate change could be catastrophic for their survival which is already under threat due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When countries imposed lockdowns earlier this year to stem the spread of the coronavirus airlines faced steep drops in revenue that have claimed several carriers.
A number of countries stepped in with support, including France which provided $8.2 billion to Air France and the Netherlands which received a $2.9 billion package.
“This support will permit us to hold on less than 12 months,” said Smith.
The reason is that air traffic is picking up very slowly as many northern hemisphere countries are now fearing a second wave of infections.
“If we base it upon the past few weeks, it is clear that the recovery in traffic will be slower than expected,” according to Smith, who said when the bailout was put together the airline was expecting a return to 2019 levels only in 2024.
Smith said discussions were already underway with shareholders on shoring up the airline group, and steps would be taken before the next regular annual meeting in the second quarter of next year.
“One, three or five billion euros? It is too early to put a figure on a possible recapitalization,” he said.
The airline group had $12.12 billion in cash or available under credit lines.
Major shareholders include the French government with a 14.3 percent stake, the Dutch government at 14 percent, as well as Delta and China Eastern airlines which each hold an 8 percent stake.
Governments are coming under pressure to tie airline bailouts to environmental commitments.
One proposal that has come from a citizen’s convention convoked by President Emmanuel Macron would cost airlines an estimated $3.6 billion.
Smith said the imposition of environmental charges on the industry would be “irresponsible and catastrophic” for Air France-KLM.