Erik Orsenna, economist and travel writer, and Jean-Marc Boursier, Group Deputy CEO for the Recycling and Recovery business in Europe, discuss their vision and their experiences of the circular economy.
When we speak of plastic, we talk more and more often about pollution of the oceans. Erik Orsenna, what is your opinion on this issue?
Erik Orsenna: The ocean is the place from which all life comes. We go there in search of freedom and purity but today we see more and more plastic bags on the high seas. They are literally everywhere. Obviously, we think about the fish that ingest this plastic but also about this “6th continent” made entirely of plastic that was created by currents in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there are 150 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans. It’s striking that we must resign ourselves to the fact that the sea is becoming a giant garbage can filled with plastic. If we continue to do nothing, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
Plastic is a truly magnificent material but it’s extremely difficult to do without it. It’s a major form of pollution not only because we see it; it’s also a form of pollution for fauna, especially those that lives in the sea. In that way, we might say that plastic is an attack on life. It’s important to bear in mind that plastic originally comes from oil. In fact, plastic is the visible nightmare of oil.
Jean-Marc Boursier: To continue with Erik’s line of thought, it’s important to note that today in Europe we consume 50 million tonnes of plastic a year, compared with 1 million tonnes at the end of the Second World War. This means that the use of plastic has increased fiftyfold in fifty years and this trend will continue. The question of collecting and treating plastic is thus essential if we want to avoid having it end up in the sea.
We often say that the fight against plastic pollution of the ocean begins on land. Jean-Marc Boursier, what is SUEZ doing to fight against this kind of pollution?
JMB: The plastic that we find in the oceans comes from two sources: the improper management of waste on the land and, more insidious, the overflow of micro-particles of plastic that are not filtered out by certain wastewater treatment facilities.
So how do we fight this kind of pollution? The first thing to remember is that there is not ONE kind but SEVERAL kinds of plastic. There are all sorts of polymers and each one requires a special form of treatment. That’s because we don’t treat squeezable plastic in the same way that we treat hard plastic, such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. It’s important to bear in mind that manufacturers are designing plastics whose treatment is more and more complicated because they want to, let’s admit it, make their packaging lighter. The problem is that in doing so, they create plastic that we don’t know how to recycle, which makes the recycling and recovery chain extremely complex. SUEZ must understand the challenges of each of these plastics channels if it wants to provide a pertinent response.
Faced with this challenge, SUEZ’s role is to work together with these manufacturers to promote eco-design. It’s crucial to promote the use of plastics that we know we can treat, thereby ensuring their recyclability. At present, only 7% of the 50 million tonnes of plastic used each year in Europe comes from recycled polymers. This is ridiculously low. We need to do much more and do it much better. SUEZ is striving to do so every day.
Can you give us an example of one of these forms of plastic that is used everyday but which is not recyclable?
JMB: In France, for example, there is currently a debate launched by the Ministry of the Environment on opaque polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is very complicated – some would say impossible – to process as it is. Opaque PET is, for example, used for the packaging of certain bottles of milk. These bottles used to be made of high-density polyethylene (PEHD), which was replaced by PET because it is less costly and lighter. And because light will travel through this plastic, it has been made opaque with carbon black or titanium dioxide, components that are highly complex to isolate and treat.
Eco-design is thus a collective awareness of the fact that we need to bring to market packaging that we know a priori can be recycled.
EO: What is interesting is that SUEZ analyses plastics as if they were “living” entities. Plastlab is a specialized laboratory that studies all forms of plastic and all solutions for breaking them down. In a certain way, plastic is the enemy that we must be familiar with if we want to fight it. That’s SUEZ’s mission within Plastlab.
Jean-Marc Boursier, what are SUEZ’s objectives and priorities with regard to the issue of recycling and recovering plastic?
JMB: The priority is to explain what the virtues of recycled plastic are compared with virgin plastic and to demonstrate the quality of the secondary raw materials brought to market. Manufacturers are Cartesian in that they accept the idea of purchasing secondary materials if – and only if – they can be shown that the quality and price compare favourably with that of virgin material.
For example, plastics have very different value depending on their colour. The plastic of a bottle of water has a certain value become it is transparent. If the plastic is even very lightly coloured, the seller of water will not use it and the plastic will lose a large percentage of its value. That’s why we’re working at Plastlab on decolouring plastic without losing sight of the fact that depigmentation is a very complicated area. The same holds true for our granules’ residual odours, which we must eradicate.
As you can see, our customers are demanding and rightly so. Consequently, we also need to be demanding with ourselves with regard to the quality of products that we make available to them.
Looking beyond the role of manufacturers in promoting plastic recycling and recovery, what is our role as citizens?
JMB: I think that the role of the citizen is fundamental, alongside that of manufacturers. It’s an important role at two instants in the act of consumption.
First of all, at the moment of purchasing. Let’s take for example, the bottle that I’m holding in my hand. If I look at the label it doesn’t tell me that the plastic is recycled or recyclable. The label tells by only that the manufacturer has paid eco-contribution (“Eco-emballage” pictogram  ). As a consumer, I make the hypothesis that a recycling channel exists and that the bottle will be recovered. But, personally, I want to know more. I want to know, on one hand, if the plastic is recyclable, and – even more important – if it is recycled. With this kind of information the citizen/consumer can consciously choose to opt for a product that is recycled or not.
The second moment when citizens/consumers have a very important role to play is when they have finished consuming the product. They then must be able to sort the bottle correctly. If they can’t, it will be more difficult for us to separate it from the other waste in the garbage can.
In the end, I truly believe that citizens/consumers, by their behaviour, will influence how brands think about the recycling of plastic. SUEZ’s role is to help communities, brands and executives from large distributors rethink the industry in such a way that the bottle can be separated at the outset and then recycled as a new bottle suitable for food. That’s the circular economy.
EO: As you know, there is more and more urgent demand from consumers to know the origin of the products that they consume. The word that describes this trend is an ugly word but it means what it means: traceability. The traceability of the contents is not enough. We also need to know about the traceability of the containers. That’s become if the contents are extremely virtuous – natural food for example – but sold in packaging that short circuits the recycling chains, that’s not a winning equation. I must simultaneously play my roles as a novelist and an economist: what is the history of what we eat and what is the history of that which contains what we eat? We have the right to know this history instead of remaining ignorant. We have the right to know with what products we are in contact.
Which brings me to my next question. What is SUEZ doing to support consumers?
JMB: First of all, we’re working with brands, all of whom want to reduce their environmental footprint. That’s why it’s very important for them to see that their plastic packaging doesn’t end up on the beaches or in the sea. For example, we recently signed an agreement with Procter & Gamble for its Head & Shoulders brand of shampoo. We’re supporting them in the manufacture of a new bottle produced in part with high-density polyethylene gathered on the beaches, as well as a change of packaging design to make their approach highly explicit for their customers. Recycling, which is sometimes seen by the brand as a constraint, becomes in this case a positive element for the brand image and, consequently, for sales. This initiative has been warmly welcomed and in the near future we’re going to launch a second collection campaign in which our employees will be very much involved.
Then, after supporting the brands, we’re going to invent the production tools that optimize sorting, sometimes over-sorting and recovery. Our sorting centres are more and more modern and make it possible to separate several kinds of plastic from other waste flows. Once we have isolated the flow of materials, we will close the loop by producing granules, which then will be used to manufacture new plastic bottles.
It’s important to remember that recycling plastic is also highly virtuous in the fight against global warming. A tonne of recycled plastic means five barrels of oil have been saved. And producing recycled plastic is ten times more energy efficient than producing virgin plastic from oil. Lastly, one tonne of recycled means a 1.6-tonne reduction in carbon emissions.
EO: My journeys to the Group’s sites also allowed me to note the return of consignment. Previously, consumers had to return their glass bottles for money. This system has returned with plastic, with booths installed by RECO  on supermarket parking lots, first in the Netherlands and then throughout France, for the past two years. In exchange for their old plastic bottles, consumers receive discount vouchers.
JMB: Erik is right. There are many areas in which we are going to see consignment reappear. The shortest loop is the most efficient, for example, when the consumer is asked to bring back packaging that has already been pre-sorted. In France, we are encouraged to do so by legislation since we’re going to install a variable element in how waste collection will be invoiced in the future. This is called incentive-based pricing. The less the quantity of mixed waste that SUEZ collects from a consumer in its door to door pickup rounds, the less the consumer will be billed for the removal of household waste. The trend is the same in northern Europe.
The message is very clear: “Bring us your waste yourself and you won’t have to pay for it anymore.” I would go even further, saying that “Some flows of high-quality materials (I’m thinking of plastic film) have a very positive value. Welcome to the new world of the secondary resource.”
EO: Please allow me to go back to the COP 21 conference in Paris. Believe me, I know a little about diplomatic questions, and no inter-governmental agreement could be better. And yet, everything remains to be done. We need to stop blaming manufacturers when we as individuals don’t make the effort to sort our waste. If we want to save the planet, we need the involvement of the entire chain.
JMB: Even this morning, we went on a waste collection round with Erik, and we noted that in the city where we were, the people were not even asked to sort their waste. Speaking as someone who is committed to this business, I find that deplorable.
 Created in France 20 years ago, this pictogram means that the company which sells the product participate financially to the collection, sorting and recycling of waste.
 In which SUEZ holds a 70% stake