The idea of a circular economy for plastic waste is taking shape in three European cities – all chosen to pilot innovations designed by PlastiCircle, an ambitious project funded by the European Commission. In a big year for the project, PlastiCircle is targeting real improvements in waste collection, transport, sorting and recycling. And citizens in Spain, the Netherlands and Romania will be the first to benefit.

In the European Union, more than 25 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced each year – a staggering amount considering that less than a third of this waste is recycled and given a second life. Much of the waste is sent to landfill sites around the continent – an environmental issue on one hand, and on the other a loss of value to the European economy to the tune of 10 billion euros per year. But of all the plastic waste we produce in Europe, more than 60% is packaging waste; packaging from supermarket produce, food and drink and all manner of household products.

The incentive for Europe is clear. Reduce plastic litter, reduce CO2 emissions, keep the value of plastic materials by giving them a second life, and create business and employment opportunities as part of a circular economy. No more “take, make and dispose”, but rather a circular way of doing things where materials can be used again and again while boosting the economy. To do this, investment by the European Commission in innovative, international projects is reaching record levels.

One of a clutch of projects targeting a circular economy for plastics and plastic packaging waste, PlastiCircle is tackling household plastic waste in three European cities: Valencia in Spain, Utrecht in the Netherlands, and Alba Iulia in Romania. All with different levels of environmental awareness among citizens, and all with different cultures and infrastructures.

Through ambitious pilot projects in all three cities, PlastiCircle aims to increase the volume of plastic waste that residents recycle, improve the quality of that waste, and make waste transport to the sorting plants more efficient. It is also targeting improved sorting and recycling processes so that all the packaging waste collected from the pilot cities can be used to produce a raft of added-value recycled products for the housing, automotive and residential sectors. And with all three cities hosting PlastiCircle pilots in 2019, the race is on for good results.

On the Mediterranean coast of Spain, PlastiCircle’s first pilot kicked off on 1 May in the bustling Valencian neighbourhood of Sant Marceŀlí.

Some 9,900 residents make up this busy neighbourhood – with the third highest population for a district in Valencia and with the third highest population density among all the barrios in the city. In addition, a varied demographic spread and very active residents’ association mean that Sant Marceŀlí is the ideal place to trial new ways of doing things when it comes to household waste.

The results so far have been encouraging. Residents of all ages and backgrounds have been signing up for the PlastiCircle project. This means a quick and free online registration to obtain a personal smart card. This is used at one of 25 yellow rubbish containers dotted around the neighbourhood – the so-called “smart containers” that recognise the user ID and prints a unique label on the spot for that person’s rubbish bag. This way, residents are not only encouraged to effectively sort their plastic waste, but when they go to deposit the bag at their local container, they do so in the knowledge that they will later be rewarded for their good recycling with a range of incentives and rewards created in collaboration with the municipality. Even before the waste reached the sorting or recycling stages, PlastiCircle is giving a new dimension to household waste treatment.

And even waste transport is changing. With the use of an Internet of Things (IoT) cloud platform and optimised collection routes, drivers of waste collection trucks are saving time, costs and CO2 emissions. Yet another innovation that the project will be rolling out in Utrecht and Alba Iulia when the Valencia pilot finishes in September.

For project co-ordinator César Aliaga of Spanish technology centre ITENE, the different realities on the ground don’t deter PlastiCircle from an ambitious set of targets:

“To give you an idea, in countries such as Spain and Romania, plastic packaging collection rates are 75% and 59% respectively. With PlastiCircle, we want to increase this to 87%. For waste transportation we specifically want to increase the filling levels in the containers, and of course reduce fuel consumption by the vehicles. This makes for a more economically viable way of doing things.”

For Aliaga, the same level of ambition applies to the sorting stage of the process. “PlastiCircle has the target of reducing material losses in sorting to less than 20%– whereas the average in Europe today is 25%,” he says.

“We also aim to improve precision in sorting to more than 95% – something which Europe isn’t achieving at the moment.”

Aliaga maintains that delivering a “PlastiCircle approach” won’t be without its challenges. Early glitches with rubbish bag labels, although swiftly fixed, have provided a stark reminder that as with any large-scale pilot project, the team must be ready for hurdles along the way.

“It is also a real challenge getting the entire plastics value chain to work together,” adds Aliaga, “including waste managers, recycling companies, citizens, plastic manufacturers, researchers, cities and so forth. But the results until now are very promising and I am confident that this approach will be implemented in the EU in the following years.”

For the PlastiCircle team, an international consortium of some 20 European organisations, the EU focus is crucial. Fresh from the streets of Sant Marceŀlí in Valencia, bringing the PlastiCircle story to key decision makers in Brussels is also part of the effort to put PlastiCircle innovations into the mainstream and get policy makers and businesses on board.

At the half-way mark in the project, PlastiCircle will be in Brussels on 16 May for Circular Cities – Innovating to tackle plastic waste’ – a major conference and innovation showcase co-organised with global city network ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

Business, European institutions and circular economy experts will all be there to see firsthand how PlastiCircle is leading the way in innovations for the plastic packaging value chain.

And with the Utrecht and Alba Iulia pilots still to come this year, PlastiCircle has all the potential to blaze a trail for other European cities working towards the circular economy of the future.