EU plastics strategy aims to build secondary markets to make recycling plastics ‘profitable’

"Plastics: we can’t live without them, but we can be killed by them if we don’t deal with them properly," said European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans as the EU adopted the first ever Europe-wide plastics strategy today (16 January), placing an emphasis on creating secondary markets for recycled plastics in its bid to create a truly circular economy in Europe.

The strategy, which forms part of the EU’s Circular Economy Package, was presented by Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development, and Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, and details how the EU aims to protect the environment from the scourge of plastic pollution while also fostering growth and innovation to turn this challenge into an opportunity.

EU plastics strategy aims to build secondary markets to make recycling plastics ‘profitable’The issue of plastics pollution has rocketed into the public consciousness all across the world in the past year as the effects of the estimated 8-12 million tonnes of plastic that enter the marine environment every year become more apparent, brought to new audiences by David Attenborough’s BBC series Blue Planet II, which was cited in the press conference by Timmermans. Just last week, the UK Government's long-term 25 Year Environment Plan centred on the reduction of plastic waste.

The strategy seeks to address issues throughout the plastics supply chain, from design through production and usage, and through to the end-of-life stage, through stimulating an internal single-market for recycled plastic to make the business case for plastics recycling, while fiscal and legislative measures will be explored to achieve aims including to make all plastic packaging on the EU market recyclable by 2030, to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics and to restrict the intentional use of microplastics.

Both Timmermans and Katainen were keen to stress the importance of plastic to the economy and society at large, before going on to state that the way we use plastic must change if we are to stymie the negative effects of its presence in the environment.

Speaking at the press conference, Timmermans said: “Plastics: we can’t live without them, but we can be killed by them if we don’t deal with them properly. If we don't change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. We must stop plastics getting into our water, our food, and even our bodies.

“The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more. This is a challenge that citizens, industry and governments must tackle together. With the EU Plastics Strategy we are also driving a new and more circular business model. We need to invest in innovative new technologies that keep our citizens and our environment safe whilst keeping our industry competitive."

Katainen added: "With our plastic strategy we are laying the foundations for a new circular plastics economy, and driving investment towards it. This will help to reduce plastic litter in land, air and sea while also bringing new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and high quality jobs. This is a great opportunity for European industry to develop global leadership in new technology and materials. Consumers are empowered to make conscious choices in favour of the environment. This is truly win-win."

A new plastics economy

The strategy recognises the environmentally harmful and wasteful way in which we currently design, produce, use and discard plastics and seeks to embed greater sustainability into an approach that also maintains and boosts Europe’s economic health.

Under the new strategy, the EU will pursue the following aims:

Make recycling profitable for business

New rules on packaging will be developed to ensure all plastic packaging on the EU market is recyclable by 2030, while the separate collection of plastics waste from other waste streams will be expanded across Europe. If accompanied by increasing European plastic recycling facilities, these actions could save businesses around €100 per tonne of plastics waste collected. Further profitability for plastics can be attained through the development of secondary markets for recyclable plastics within Europe, something that is all the more pressing since China banned the import of post-consumer plastic from the beginning of this year.

Curbing plastic waste

European legislation has already led to a significant reduction in plastic bag use in several member states. The new plans will now turn to other single-use plastics and fishing gear, supporting national awareness campaigns and increased producer responsibility and determining the scope of new EU-wide rules to be proposed in 2018 based on stakeholder consultation and evidence. The European Commission will also take measures to restrict the use of microplastics in products, and fix labels for biodegradable and compostable plastics.

Stopping littering at sea

New rules on port reception facilities will tackle sea-based marine litter, with measures to ensure that waste generated on ships or gathered at sea is not left behind but returned to land and adequately managed there, through extended producer responsibility schemes or deposit return schemes. Also included are measures to reduce the administrative burden on ports, ships and competent authorities.

Driving investment and innovation

The Commission will provide guidance for national authorities and European businesses on how to minimise plastic waste at source. Support for innovation will be scaled up, with an additional €100 million (£89 million) from the Horizon 2020 funds financing the development of smarter and more recyclable plastics materials, making recycling processes more efficient, and tracing and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics.

Spurring change across the world

The EU will also work with its partners from around the world to come up with global solutions and develop international standards. It will also continue to support others, especially developing countries where the lack of adequate waste management infrastructure allows increasing levels of plastic pollution to enter the marine environment.

The press conference announcing the EU's Plastics Strategy can be viewed below:

Reducing single-use plastics

Going forward, in order to convert these aims into tangible actions, the Commission will present its proposal on reducing single-use plastics later in 2018, and stakeholders have until 12 February 2018 to contribute to the public consultation on the issue.

The Commission is also set to begin work on the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and the preparation of guidelines on the separate collection and sorting of plastics waste, both due for release in 2019.

You can view the strategy - ‘A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy’ - in full on the European Commission’s website. 

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