Key messages : Recycling is one of several key options for handling the growing amount of plastic waste in Europe. Increasing plastic recycling would help reduce climate consequences and other environmental impacts. Plastic recycling rates are relatively low and hindered by hazardous substances in plastic products.  Greater focus is needed on preventing plastic waste in the first place; designing products containing plastic to be recyclable and circular; and improving the traceability of chemical substances in both plastics and recycling processes.  

Plastic consumption has grown significantly over the past decades and, consequently, so has plastic waste. This makes managing plastics and plastic waste increasingly important, with recycling as one key option to do so. However, plastic recycling rates are still relatively low. Plastic packaging is one of the few sectors for which recycling rates are reported; these vary considerably across the EU-27, with the average being 41% in 2019.  

Moving towards higher recycling rates will lower demand for virgin plastics. This, in turn, will result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production and help ease other environmental pressures from plastic production, use and waste, as well as helping to reduce plastic pollution. It will also reduce dependencies and increase EU strategic autonomy for some specific feedstock (e.g. fossil fuels). However, there are some key challenges to high-quality plastic waste recycling . These include: 

  • Material-based challenges related to the content of hazardous substances in plastics and in some cases in the polymers themselves (e.g. polyvinyl chloride (PVC); (See below for more details);

  • Product-based challenges. Plastic products are often designed without reuse, repair or recycling in mind. Moreover, some products include laminates of different materials (e.g. plastic, metal and paper), which makes sorting and recycling difficult. A large part of plastic is used for packaging and these products are often  contaminated by food and other substances, which hinder recycling;  

  • Downcycling and degradation challenges. Downcycling occurs both when the recycled content is of lower quality than the original product and when recyclates are used in products of lower value than the original; for example, when polyethylene terephthalate (PET) from plastic bottles is used in textiles. This reduces the possible number of recycling loops; 

  • Market-related challenges. Recycled plastics are perceived to be of lower quality than virgin plastics, resulting in relatively low (although increasing) demand. The low price of primary materials and the costs associated with recycling plastics impact demand for recycled plastics.  

Material-based obstacles

Hazardous substances in plastics pose a significant obstacle to increased recycling. Certain monomers such as vinyl chloride in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – found in piping, construction, and healthcare items  – and some of the over 13,000 substances used as additives, colourants, plasticisers, stabilisers, etc. These hazardous substances can pose health risks and are therefore undesired in recycled plastics used for new products. 

Some of the substances found in plastics that have been identified as a major concern include:  

  • specific flame retardants;

  • certain ultraviolet (UV) stabilisers; 

  • per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs); 

  • phthalates, bisphenols, alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates; 

  • biocides; 

  • certain metals and metalloids; 

  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; 

  • many other non-intentionally added substances (EU) No 10/2011). 

Specific flame retardants have for example been detected in plastic goods purchased on the European market.

Once included, it is very difficult to extract unwanted substances from plastics. This, coupled with low traceability of – and uncertainty about – the chemical content of plastics, creates a barrier for recycling and reduces demand for recycled products.  

In addition, plastics consist of several types of polymers, some of which are more recyclable than others in current waste management systems. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) found in plastic bottles is recycled to a much higher degree than the PVC used in pipes). Meanwhile, thermoset plastics (e.g. carbon fibre in windmills) currently have very limited recycling possibilities. 

Possible options

There are several ways to overcome the challenges of mechanical recycling all of which need careful consideration and coordination. These include prevention, eco-design, and improving traceability and recycling processes. 

  • Prevention –reducing the amount of plastic waste and unnecessary plastic consumption in the first place – would ease pressure on plastic waste management. However, simply substituting plastic with other types of materials (e.g. paper, metal) could lead to other or similar environmental impacts.   

  • Eco-design could help make products more reusable, repairable and recyclable. This could include using fewer types of polymers/materials when possible, and designing for disassembly and reuse rather than single use. Eco-design also includes minimising the use of hazardous substances. It is better to avoid using such substances rather than focusing on finding ways to remove them during recycling. 

  • Improving the traceability of plastic products and waste would boost recycling and increase trust in recycled materials. For example, this could be done through digital watermarking,  or blockchain or AI technology.  

  • Improving recycling processes would include enhancing collection, separation and sorting systems. Examples include curbside separation, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, near-infrared spectroscopy or even manual sorting. Increasing recycling infrastructure and reduce the need to export EU plastic waste could also be beneficial .  

  • In addition, chemical recycling could supplement mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling techniques offer some opportunities for handling hazardous chemicals, mixed waste streams, compound materials, contaminated waste, and improving the quality of recycled material (to reach food grade levels). However, caveats include high costs and energy demands, verification of recycled content at the product level, and competition with mechanical recycling waste streams . Therefore, these potential alternatives need to be considered carefully before being used. 

To provide further insights on the circularity of plastics in Europe, the European Environment Agency (EEA) is launching the Circularity Metrics Lab (CML) with a dedicated set of indicators (thematic module) for plastics. 

References and footnotes

  1. ETC/CE, 2023, The fate of EU plastic waste, ETC/CE Report 2023/2 ( accessed 06 September 2023.
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  4. ETC/WMGE, 2021, Greenhouse gas emissions and natural capital implications of plastics (including biobased plastics), ETC/WMGE Report 3/2021 ( accessed 06 September 2023.
  5. EEA, 2021, Plastics, the circular economy and Europe’s environment — a priority for action, EEA Report No 18/2020, European Environment Agency ( accessed 06 September 2023.
  6. EEA, 2022, Investigating Europe′s secondary raw material markets, EEA Report No 12/2022, European Environment Agency ( accessed 06 September 2023.
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  8. EEA, 2022, ‘Managing non-packaging plastics in European waste streams — the missing part of the plastic puzzle’, EEA Briefing, European Environment Agency ( accessed 06 September 2023.
  9. Bhubalan, K., et al., 2022, ‘Leveraging blockchain concepts as watermarkers of plastics for sustainable waste management in progressing circular economy’, Environmental Research 213, p. 113631 (
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  11. Garcia-Gutierrez, P., et al., 2023, Environmental and economic assessment of plastic waste recycling, JRC Technical Report No JRC132067, JRC (