INSIGHT: Stricter enforcement needed to tackle EU plastic waste

21 January 2014 15:18  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--Plastic waste is a problem – and plastics litter probably even more so, although it draws attention to our laziness and to malfunctioning recycling systems.

A headache in Europe is that plastic recycling operates efficiently in some member states but not well in others. Only about 25% of plastic waste EU-wide is currently recycled.

Consumers may have become increasingly aware of plastics in the environment, but the question is whether they are prepared to take the next step and actively recycle.

Plastic litter in the marine environment, for instance, is widely regarded as unacceptable, but we still pollute. Europeans use 466 plastic bags on average each year, and most end up as litter.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) last week (14 January) suggested that the EU should address the problem by introducing binding plastic waste recycling targets and banning certain plastic bags by 2020.

They want to see a waste collection and sorting target of 80%, mandatory recycling and the phase-out of sending plastics to landfill. They want incineration to be discouraged and to be used only as last resort.

Plastic waste is damaging the environment because EU legislation on waste is only weakly enforced and because of the lack of specific laws on plastic waste.

Fully enforcing legislation could save €72bn a year, the MEPs say, boost the annual turnover of EU waste management and recycling firms by €42bn and create more than 400,000 jobs by 2020.

“We said today that we want to change bad habits and account for our products, from production through to final disposal,” said MEP Vittorio Prodi, the rapporteur who tabled the text of a resolution on plastic waste to parliament.

“By putting these products to good use and recycling them as much as possible, we close the loop and give effect to the concept of a ‘circular’ economy. This will also help to clean up our seas and land, while creating more job opportunities.”

Over the years discarded plastics have also become to be seen as a valuable resource, useful when recycled and potentially a source of energy when burned as a fuel. The use of plastics as a fuel has become a contentious issue, however, with priority given to recycling and to composting.

The differences in opinion on topics such as incineration and composting will be the focus of debate between industry and the regulators when it comes to drafting new EU waste control rules.

But the MEPs’ stance feeds positively into the plastics industry’s initiative on waste, ‘Zero plastics waste to landfill by 2020’.

“Plastics are a too valuable resource to be carelessly discarded or buried in landfills. As such, we call for a strong enforcement of the current EU waste legislation to reduce to zero the amount of recyclable and high-calorific waste going to landfill,” said PlasticsEurope executive director Karl-H Foerster last week in response to the vote in the European Parliament.

The trade group stressed in June 2013 that better enforcement of existing waste legislation is key to more effective waste management in the EU in comments on a European Commission green paper on plastic waste in the environment.

One of the failures of the green paper was that it did not address the specific shortcomings of EU member states in implementing current waste legalisation, PlasticsEurope said.

“It is clear that any attempt to overcome existing deficits in waste management should start with a full understanding of the specific situation in each member state. It is noteworthy to mention that in member states where EU legislation is properly implemented and enforced plastic waste is not a problem, since it is successfully being used as a resource,” it added.

It is the concept of plastics waste as a resource that best fits the industry perspective, but not necessarily that of the politicians.

From a life cycle perspective, it is not always sustainable to recycle all plastics, and some it is best to burn, but concerns remain about waste incineration.

Concerns appear to be growing about plastic additives, too, and could stifle packaging innovation, the industry suggests. The MEPs also voted on 14 January to ban the “most hazardous plastics” by 2020.

Plastics makers also want to ensure that there is a clear distinction in the eye of the regulator and the public between bio-based and biodegradable plastics. “Biodegradability, or any other form of enhanced degradation of plastics, does not solve the litter problem,” the trade group has stressed.

The issue has come to the fore in the UK, which plans to introduce a plastic bag levy in 2015, but might possibly exempt biodegradable bags. The plastics industry has lobbied that an exemption for biodegradable bags could lead to widespread contamination of the conventional plastics waste stream and damage the integrity of recycled plastics.

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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