Convenience, Conscience and Commerce: The Future of Plastics

European Investment Fund (EIF)
8 min readDec 13, 2023
plastics, environment, pollution, recycling
Innovative solutions from European SMEs to make plastics more sustainable

Modern life would be unimaginable without plastics, so innumerable are their use cases and benefits. However, plastics disposal and recycling still pose certain challenges, but a number of innovative European SMEs are pioneering sustainable solutions for a more circular plastics economy.

Mobile phones and televisions, kitchen utensils, clothing, personal care products, furniture, car parts, sports equipment, medical devices, appliances, plumbing, packaging materials — what would our lives be like without plastics?

As this selective litany suggests, plastics are extremely versatile, lightweight, highly durable, cost-effective, flexible, beneficial from a health and safety perspective, and advantageous in terms of their insulation properties and water and chemical resistance. Simply put, plastics have revolutionised our lives, but the revolution has come at a cost, with many decrying plastics as being bad for us and bad for the environment.

When we speak of inanimate objects as being “good” or “bad,” though, aren’t we assigning ethics to things, which necessarily lack agency? Is an object such as a plastic bottle “bad” in and of itself? Or is it merely a tool — like artificial intelligence or a screwdriver or a shovel? None of these things are inherently “good” or “bad;” it’s more a matter of how we use them — the key here being human agency, or our actions and the consequences that stem from them.

In this article, we explore our evolving relationship with plastics before showcasing a number of innovative European SMEs that are helping to transform that relationship into a more sustainable one for generations to come.

What Exactly Are Plastics?

plastics, environment, pollution, recycling

Plastics are, in a word, everywhere — even in the most unexpected of places. From chewing gum and tea bags to bees, fish, and even something as granular as table salt, they have become a seemingly inescapable part of modern life. But what exactly are they? What is the secret alchemy that makes them so robust, practical, and versatile? It’s time for a brief chemistry refresher.

First patented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907, plastics are a group of synthetic materials derived from polymers, or large molecules comprised of repeating units called monomers. The actual process of creating them involves polymerisation, whereby monomers bond together chemically to form long chains (i.e., polymers). And as we all know, plastics come in all different shapes and sizes, reflecting the fact that these polymers can vary greatly in terms of strength, durability, and transparency, among other things.

Broadly speaking, plastics typically fall under one of two categories, either thermoplastics or thermosetting plastics. As their name suggests, thermoplastics can be heated and (re)shaped without any fundamental change, and common examples include polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polystyrene (PS). Conversely, thermosetting plastics are the result of robust links between polymer chains, which do not allow for re-melting or re-shaping, with resins and epoxies being two common examples.

However, their remarkable versatility is also one of their greatest drawbacks.

Why Are Plastics Difficult to Recycle?

plastics, environment, pollution, recycling

Statistics vary, but an estimated four hundred million tonnes of plastics are produced annually, the majority of which is for single use. Eight million tonnes of plastics eventually end up in the world’s oceans, amounting to almost fifteen tonnes every minute. An estimated third of plastic waste is recycled in Europe, which means that roughly sixty-six percent of plastics never make it to European recycling centres. By any measure, the statistics are astonishing. This, then, is the first drawback — most plastic simply isn’t recycled.

Complicating matters is the fact that even when they are recycled, plastics cannot be recycled infinitely. Unlike other materials (such as metal), plastics gradually start to degrade with repeated chemical or mechanical recycling, rendering them no longer useful at a certain point. Recalling our chemistry crash-course above, a more efficient — and indeed effective — recycling process would involve creating single polymer plastics (rather than polymer blending — combining polymers with other polymers) in order to avoid the energy-intensive process of separating polymers. This, then, is the second drawback — the inherent limitations of plastic recycling.

The (In)visible Threat: (Micro)plastics

But sizeable numbers run the risk of becoming mere abstractions. Can we visualise, for example, a tonne of plastic waste, much less eight million tonnes? Unfortunately, the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” reifies the scale of the problem in which an estimated 1.9 trillion plastic pieces were thought to be floating in a patch roughly three times the size of France, most of which is comprised of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) plastics entangled in fishing nets and ropes.

plastics, environment, pollution, food supply, oceans

With so much plastic circulating globally, and so much of it being non-biodegradable or simply not recycled, it is unsurprising to find it on the microscopic level. If plastics are in many of the things that we eat and drink, then microplastics are indeed in us, too — even in our blood. As the saying in German goes, “Man ist, was man isst” (“One is what one eats”).

Technically-speaking, microplastics are defined as anything smaller than five millimetres that are the result of the disposal or breaking down of consumer products (e.g., cosmetics, certain toothpastes) or industrial waste. The term dates to 1990 and has surged in use in the intervening decades as public awareness of the scope of the problem has increased.

European SMEs and Creative Solutions to the Problems of (Micro)Plastics

When faced with the many challenges of plastic pollution, European SMEs have responded with an array of innovative solutions and sustainable alternatives that emphasise reducing plastic use and waste, encouraging recycling efforts, exploring biodegradable packaging, and upcycling.

Naturally, it is a complex problem that requires a complex set of solutions, and these solutions may indeed need to change over time, but a crucial component of the equation is access to market-based financing instruments to scale. In fact, the EIF recently invested €50 million in Infinity Recycling’s Circular Plastics Fund to accelerate circularity in the plastics industry. In this respect, the European Investment Fund remains committed to supporting Europe’s dynamic entrepreneurial sector, and the following SMEs that we have supported provide a window into some of the creative solutions to the problem of realising a more environmentally responsible future for us all.

AION and the Circular Plastic Economy

Circularity is at the heart of recycling, and Oslo-based AION’s commitment to environmental sustainability is reflected in their emphasis on scaling a circular plastic economy. In order to realise their vision of transitioning from linear to circular plastic use, AION provide advisory insights to companies looking to achieve plastic accountability as well as offer a range of reusable plastic products and even a proprietary digital technology platform that enables traceability.

AION begin by harvesting industrial waste streams and then sending the plastics to mechanical recycling. The result is granulate, which can then be used in the creation of a range of products (e.g., serving trays, takeaway bowls, shopping baskets), which can in turn be recycled and re-purposed in the future. The company’s AION LOOP allows for traceability through the entire value chain, using the power of data to track and trace the journey of plastic from its starting point as industrial waste to the point at which a particular plastic product can be renewed. And with CEO Runa Haug Khoury at the helm, AION are part of the growing presence of women-led SMEs across the European entrepreneurial landscape.

Behring and Water Purification

Beverages were not always bottled in plastic. Initially, it was glass, then steel, and then aluminium before plastic became king in the early 1970s with the advent of the first PET bottle. Since then, we’ve become accustomed to the ease and convenience of bottled drinks, whilst largely turning a blind eye to the consequences of hydrating ourselves in a less-than-sustainable way.

Grenoble-based water purification specialists Behring aim to change people’s water consumption habits and general reliance on bottled water by providing safe, contamination-free water from water fountains.

By removing plastic bottles from the equation — plastics that need to be transported, distributed, and, ideally, recycled (increasing their overall carbon footprint) — Behring have created fountains as well as small filtering devices that can be fitted to water supplies. Their threefold process involves hydrodynamic cavitation, UV treatment (versus traditional lamps), and continuous monitoring (e.g., UV lamp efficacy or scale in pipes) to ensure the safety of the water supply. The process is chemical-free and low energy, making it a safe and sustainable way to get your eight glasses of H2O each day without having to resort to plastics.

Calyxia and the Fight Against Microplastics

In true cinematic fashion, let’s move from a wide or long shot (circular plastic economy) to an extreme closeup. Paris-based Calyxia designs and manufactures sustainable microcapsules for companies across several industries. Microencapsulation — or the process of separately encapsulating tiny particles of droplets of a given substance for controlled release — is applicable to a broad range of compounds. Calyxia’s microcapsules are biodegradable and fully customisable, and their process is compatible with over two hundred different shell (biodegradable and bio-based) materials.

(Micro)encapsulation has wide applications, including in pharmaceutical industries, agrochemical, food industries, and cosmetics. Within an agricultural context, microencapsulation can lead to enhanced crop protection and global food supply. Closer to home, Calyxia’s biodegradable microcapsules can help to create a greener, cleaner home by using sustainable fragrances without the need for plastics. Talk about a breath of fresh air.

Changing Our Relationship with Plastic

In the spirit of a circular trajectory, we must acknowledge that plastics are inextricably linked with modernity, and they continue to provide a seemingly endless array of benefits. Quite simply, life would be unimaginable (and invariably more difficult) without them.

We also need to underscore the extent to which we are using plastics irresponsibly. Increased convenience has often come at the expense of the environment, and scientists are still trying to figure out the extent of the damage. Embracing renewable sources of energy as well as sustainable materials and practices, and encouraging and increasing recycling and upcycling will minimize plastic waste and its detrimental effects on our ecosystems.

But there are economic arguments to be made, too. Sustainable practices and technologies can foster green innovation, leading to the emergence of alternative industries and employment opportunities. We are already seeing this development in other ecosystems, with the car industry being a perfect case in point, as electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them are gradually displacing traditional petrol- and diesel-powered engines and the fossil fuel supply chain.

Semantics aside (i.e., the question of being “good” or “bad”), urgent action is needed to change our relationship with plastics in order to counteract their negative impacts. Despite the challenges (or precisely because of them), an array of dynamic European SMEs are leading the charge for sustainability to safeguard our health and the health of our planet.



European Investment Fund (EIF)

Europe's leading provider of risk financing for SMEs. Cornerstone investor in VC and PE funds. Making debt financing more affordable for entrepreneurs. @EIF_EU