The EU has adopted the “first-ever” Europe-wide strategy on plastics in what it described as a bid to protect the planet, defend its citizens and empower its industries, the European Commission said on 16 January.
Under the new plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, with consumption of single-use plastics reduced and the intentional use of microplastics restricted. The EU has also committed to making recycling profitable for businesses, to curb plastic waste, to stop littering at sea, to drive investment and innovation and to spur change across the world.
The EU’s executive body stated that the new rules on packaging alongside a better and standardised system for the separate collection and sorting of waste will save around €100/tonne collected, delivering greater added value for a more competitive, resilient plastics industry.
With European legislation having already led to a significant reduction in plastic bag use, the new plans will turn to other single-use plastics and fishing gear. 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. Measures to reduce administrative burdens on ports, ships and competent authorities will also be included.
On the investment and innovation drive, the Commission says it will provide an “additional €100m financing” for the development of smarter and more recyclable plastic materials, making recycling processes more efficient and tracing and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics.
“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,” said the Commission’s first vice president Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development. “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.”
The Commission added that, in relation to the plastics strategy, it has adopted a monitoring framework, composed of a set of 10 key indicators which cover each phase of the cycle, which will measure progress towards the transition to a circular economy at EU and national level.
“With our plastic strategy we are laying the foundations for a new circular plastics economy, and driving investment towards it,” said vice president Jyrki Katainen.
“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 the European industry to develop global leadership in new technology and materials.”
In a press conference after the release of the new strategy, Katainen confirmed that a potential tax on plastics had been explored but it has yet to find a feasible method of doing so and he is unsure whether one will be found.
“Some of our member states have used fiscal measures to reduce single-use plastic bags and it has functioned well at a national level.
“In the same spirit, we will look at the opportunities, but I have doubts that we’ll find a functioning method to tax plastics,” he added.
European trade group for plastics producers PlasticsEurope said on 16 January that plastics manufacturers are still targeting a 60% recycling level for plastics by 2030 despite the European Commission’s new strategic target of 55%.
The Commission strategy calls for all plastic packaging on the EU market to be recyclable by 2030. However, PlasticsEurope is not confident that this target can be achieved.
“We, the European plastics manufacturers, are committed to ensure high rates of reuse and recycling with the ambition to reach 60% for plastic packaging by 2030,” a statement from its executive director Karl-H Foerster said.
“This will help achieve our goal of 100% reuse, recycling and recovery of all plastics packaging at European level by 2040.”
Retailers are already reacting to the call across Europe to cut plastic waste. The most visible form of waste – plastic packaging – could be reduced significantly if more firms join food retailers such as the UK headquartered Iceland, which on Tuesday said it would turn to paper-based packaging and sharply away from plastics for its own-brand ranges of frozen and non-frozen food.
This could well be the start of a radical turnaround from food retailers which have come to rely heavily on plastic trays, film and wrapping for many – if not close to all – of their products.
And while a great deal of attention has been paid recently to plastics recycling, it is the changing position of retailers that could further and more effectively reduce demand at source.
Additional reporting by Nigel Davis, Pavle Popovic and Will Beacham