CircBrief: Towards a sustainable circular economy for plastics

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Towards a sustainable circular economy for plastics

• The world produces nearly 500 million tonnes of plastics per year, and their careless use has caused serious environmental problems.

• Only around one third of plastics are recycled.

• Sorted plastic waste requires less cleaning than plastic that needs separating from mixed waste. This also means that less energy and water is needed to make it reusable as a raw material.

• To promote the recycling of plastics, there is ongoing research and development on using recycled plastics in different products.

Leaky plastic cycles

Due to their useful properties, plastics are utilised for many purposes modern-day society. Plastics are durable and lightweight and can be adapted for many different uses. However, the large quantities of plastics produced have caused littering and other problems that are now being tackled through attempts to develop a circular economy for plastics.

Currently, only a small percentage of plastics are recycled. Approximately 370,000 tonnes of plastic waste were generated in Finland in 2019 from the most common use of plastics: packaging. This figure includes plastics from households, offices and other sources of municipal waste. In addition, plastic packaging waste is generated in industry, agriculture and construction.

Approximately one third of plastic packaging is recycled; the rest is incinerated and used to produce energy. The incineration process destroys the material itself, while recycling, prolongs the life of the material and reduces demand for virgin natural resources. The development of plastics recycling is hindered by factors such as the wide variety of plastics in use and the chemicals that are added to plastics. The plastics collection systems and recycling methods in use do not yet cover all types of plastic. Work is ongoing to develop mechanical methods and new chemical methods that will enable more efficient use of plastics.

Plastic waste is a valuable material that retains its value when recycled.
• CircBrief – best practices of circular economy • May 2023 • kiertotalouden parhaita käytäntöjä • Maaliskuu 2023 • @circwaste

How can the cycles be closed?

The problems caused by plastics can be reduced by implementing a sustainable circular economy model. This means that the natural resources used and the plastics produced from them are kept in use for as long as possible, thus maximising the economic value gained from them. In a circular economy, plastic consumption stays at reasonable levels and disposable products are replaced by durable ones.

Plastic waste is a valuable material whose value should be preserved by recycling it for use, where possible, in contexts equivalent to its original use. Plastics recycling also has its own environmental impacts, which is why developing lower-emission plastic waste collection and recycling processes is also an important step forward.

To close plastic cycles, we need product design that enables repair and recycling, reduction of consumption and disposables, reuse of products, efficient recycling of materials and measures to prevent plastics from entering the environment. In addition, additives used in plastics which are harmful to humans and the environment must be taken into account and, where necessary, removed from the cycle. Through the sub-projects of multiple partner organisations, the Circwaste project has carried out concrete experiments on the different stages of the plastics life cycle. Research and development work on plastics continues within the PlastLIFE project, which is set to run from 2023 to 2029 and will promote the implementation of the Plastic Roadmap.

Research at all stages of the plastics life cycle

Procurement of raw material

Luke: underexploited side streams from agriculture

SYKE, JyU: Harmful substances, risk assessment, toxicity

Carelia: agricultural plastics

Aalto, LAB, Muovipoli: Circular economy business

Recycling: Mechanical and chemical

Luke: bio-based packaging materials

Manufacture of polymers and plastics

SBBry: Recycling of biodegradable plastic, criteria

Plastone: plastic waste from the plastics industry

Sorting and processing


Energy recovery

KSL: plastics used for packaging

LUT, Karelia: plastics for construction

Plastic product design and manufacturing


PlastLIFE plastics life cycle

LUT: Composites

LY, Orthex, Vaahterinen: product design, recycling and bio-based raw materials for products

Distribution and trade


UTU, Luke, Karelia: Agricultural plastics

Use: packaging, construction, agriculture

City of Helsinki: Plastics for infrastructure construction

Syke, PSSry: Reducing litter

Rubbish (macro- and microplastics)

Pori: Environmental education

Focus areas for Circwaste project activities carried out in 2016–2023 in relation to the plastics life cycle. Work on tackling the plastics challenge continues within the PlastLIFE project, which was launched in January 2023. You can read more about the work of both projects on the website.

• CircBrief – best practices of circular economy • Towards a sustainable circular economy for plastics • May 2023 • • CircBrief – kiertotalouden parhaita käytäntöjä • Tavoitteena muovien kestävä kiertotalous • Maaliskuu 2023 •

Plastic packaging: out of the mixed waste and back into circulation!

The Circwaste sub-project of the Regional Council of Central Finland has examined the composition of mixed waste in both urban and sparsely populated areas. This study has provided important information on the sorting of household waste and highlights the need to invest in advising citizens on waste sorting in general and particularly the sorting of plastic waste. Even though the study showed a slight decrease in the quantity of plastic in mixed waste in 2021, the proportion of plastics in mixed waste is still around 23%, of which the majority (18%) is plastic packaging.

Resident activism plays a key role

The collection and recycling of plastics causes various environmental impacts and costs, which are particularly pronounced in sparsely populated areas. According to the study, separate collection of plastic packaging is worthwhile in terms of its climate impact, but such collections are not worth implementing for individual properties in very sparsely populated areas: regional collection points should be used instead. Closing plastics cycles requires both well-functioning waste management and collection systems and also active sorting by residents. Property-specific collections have made sorting easy for residents, as the collection point is located in their own courtyard. It is also a good idea to place local collection points close to services and thus along people’s normal daily routes.

• Read more about the project: Increased efficiency for the utilization of regional waste streams (

Challenges and opportunities for reusing agricultural plastics

As part of the Circwaste project, Karelia University of Applied Sciences has studied in North Karelia the quantities of plastic waste and circular economy solutions for them. In North Karelia, agriculture produces around 300 tonnes of plastic waste per year, while the construction sector generates around 250-400 tonnes.

Agriculture is constantly generating high-quality waste material, but it ends up being used for energy production rather than being reused or recycled. Plastics are used to protect bales of fodder, for example, as its properties are ideal for this purpose.

Sorting at source is the most important stage in the process

In order to increase the use of recycled plastic, its quality should be as close as possible to that of new plastic. When done well, sorting at source is an effective way to achieve an adequate level of quality. For it to be effective, however, there must be motivated farmers who are committed to the process. This can be difficult to achieve without economic changes to the current collection system.

One solution for increasing the circulation of agricultural waste plastic could be to shift the collection system towards the extended producer responsibility (EPR) model. This would mean that the fees for recycling are included in the price of the plastic purchased, and transportation or pick up from the farm would be free of charge.

Attention to service life and added value

Attention should be paid not only to the economic costs of agricultural waste plastics, but also to the service life of products produced from secondary raw materials. At the moment, a large number of disposable products are manufactured with very low service life and thus very low added value, as in practice these products are disposed of after their second use and then used for energy production.

• Read more about the project: Turning plastic waste from agriculture and construction into new products. (

• CircBrief – best practices of circular economy • Towards a sustainable circular economy for plastics • May 2023 • • CircBrief – kiertotalouden parhaita käytäntöjä • Tavoitteena muovien kestävä kiertotalous • Maaliskuu 2023 •

Wood-plastic composite from construction and demolition waste

Of the waste fractions contained in construction and demolition waste, several are suitable for purposes such as producing wood-plastic composite. These include wood, plastic, plasterboard and mineral wool. In the manufacturing process, the plastic and wood material is first crushed to reduce the particle size, then the residual metals are removed. An extruder or injection moulding machine can be used to make a uniform mixture of the aggregate and various additives.

Two types of wood-plastic composite were studied at LUT University as part of the Circwaste project. According to the study, the climate impacts per tonne of construction and demolition waste could be reduced by 1,900 kg Co2e/t if the composite replaced plastic, and by 2,200 kg Co2e/t if it replaced aluminium.

Environmental benefits of composite pallets

A wood-plastic composite can be used, for example, to make pallets. LUT compared the climate impacts of composite pallets made of wood and plastic construction waste with those made of new wood or plastic, calculating the impacts per 1,000 journeys. After factoring in the climate impacts of the product being replaced, the impact of the composite pallet was 65% less than that of the wooden pallet and 85% less than that of the plastic pallet.

• Read more about the project: New composite products from plastics and fibre waste. (https://www.materiaalitkiertoon. fi/en-US/content/51031/2)

CircBrief – best practices of circular economy: Towards a sustainable circular economy for plastics

May 2023

Helena Dahlbo, Sari Kauppi ja Hanna Savolahti, Suomen ympäristökeskus, Enni Huotari, Keski-Suomen liitto, Simo Paukkunen, Karelia-ammattikorkeakoulu, Jouni Havukainen, LUT-yliopisto


Fjäder, P., Korkalainen, M. et al. 2022. Muovien haitalliset ympäristö- ja terveysvaikutukset. Suomen ympäristökeskuksen raportteja 17/2022.

Khan, M.H., Deviatkin, I., Havukainen, J. et al. Environmental impacts of wooden, plastic, and wood-polymer composite pallet: a life cycle assessment approach. Int J Life Cycle Assess 26, 1607–1622 (2021).

Liikanen, M. et al. Construction and demolition waste as a raw material for wood polymer composites – Assessment of environmental impacts, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 225, 2019, Pages 716–727.

Materiaalit kiertoon > Muovit, ympäristö ja kiertotalous https:// Muovit_ymparisto_ja_kiertotalous

Keski-Suomen osahanke: Alueellisten jätevirtojen hyödyntämiseen tehoa

Pohjois-Karjalan osahanke: Maatalouden ja rakentamisen jätemuovit uusiksi tuotteiksi content/48150/1

Etelä-Karjalan osahanke: Uusia komposiittituotteita muoveista ja kuitujätteestä content/48157/1

Cover photos: Adobe Stock

Illustrations: Anna Polkutie

Layout: Satu Turtiainen, SYKE / Anna Polkutie

Communications specialist: Katja Lepistö, SYKE

Helsinki 05/2023

ISBN 978-952-11-5541-3 (PDF)

ISBN 978-952-11-5542-0 (nid.)

2200 Kg CO2e / 1,000 journeys wooden pallet © Suomen ympäristökeskus 2023 plastic palletcomposite pallet 1650 1100 550 0 2175 330 961
LIFE15 IPE FI 004 Circwaste-project receives financial support from EU for the production of its materials. The views reflected within the contents are entirely the project’s own and the EU commission is not responsible for any use of them.
julkaisun tuottamiseen on saatu rahoitusta Euroopan unionin LIFE-ohjelmasta. Sisältö edustaa ainoastaan Circwaste-hankkeen näkemyksiä ja
komissio ei ole vastuussa tämän julkaisun sisältämän informaation mahdollisesta käytöstä.
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