Behind the Circular Plastics Alliance

The European Union’s Strategy for plastics tackles the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded in order to make plastics circular.

The Commission has conducted a pledging campaign for increasing the uptake of recycled plastic material into products as part of the 2018 EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. To encourage delivery of the commitments and trigger further action by the value-chains, in 2019 they launched the ‘Circular Plastics Alliance’.

Here, businesses and all relevant stakeholders team up to improve the design for recyclability of plastics materials, on how to improve the quality and increase the quantity of recyclates and boost the collection and sorting of plastic waste. The Alliance gathers more than 170 stakeholders covering the full plastics value chains (from waste collectors to recyclers to converters, brand owners and retailers). The Alliance is a high-level, multi-stakeholder platform, with strong visibility and political support, dedicated to the achievement of specific objectives within a limited timeframe.

The Innovation Platform speaks to Daniel Calleja Crespo – European Commissions Director-General for Environment.

Can you tell us a bit more about the circular plastics alliance?

The Commission believes that initiatives of this kind can encourage a sector to lead the transition, making sure relevant economic actors are empowered and contribute to the modernisation of the value chain. This is particularly important when framed in the context of overarching policy frameworks, such as the EU Strategy for Plastics (where the Commission announced a comprehensive set of actions to make the plastics industry one of the most circular in our economy). The strategy included the Directive on single use plastics and fishing gear to fight marine litter, but also actions to increase our knowledge base, to improve the economics of plastics recycling, and actions to encourage global cooperation in the area. In other words, the Circular Plastics Alliance is a very valuable initiative in part complementing and supporting objectives identified through a very diverse set of policy actions.

In terms of alternatives to plastic, such as aluminium and glass, are these better for the environment?

I think the best way to reply to this question is to mention the original text included in the EU Strategy for Plastics, which includes a general consideration regarding the importance of plastics in our economy. Plastic is, in fact, an important and ubiquitous material in our economy and daily lives. It has multiple functions that help tackle a number of the challenges facing our society. Light and innovative materials in cars or planes save fuel and cut CO2 emissions, whilst high-performance insulation materials help us save on energy bills. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. Combined with 3D printing, bio-compatible plastic materials can save human lives by enabling medical innovation.

The Commission’s circular economy policies on plastics are not aimed to go against the industry and the material per se. The Strategy tackles the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded in order to make plastics circular. With regards to plastic alternatives, we are in principle material neutral. The future of plastics and of any other material should not be in single use products, but rather in new, more sustainable business models based on prevention, reduce and reuse. When plastics are often littered (and found in the marine environment), other reuse models and other materials (such as wood and paper) are better for the environment. This is addressed in our single use plastics Directive. Otherwise, plastics is often the better solution. However, many improvements still need to be made to make them more circular, and this is the purpose of our Plastics Strategy.

When considering alternatives to virgin plastics in general, there are three key factors that need to be considered:

  1. A sustainable management of all natural resources and primary raw materials;
  2. A single market for high quality secondary raw materials to reduce pressure on natural resources; and
  3. For plastics, recycled plastics are currently the best alternative feedstock we have.

When it comes to the new EU rules targeting the vast amount of single-use plastic and fishing gear containing plastic, what role will this play in driving investment and innovation in smart and sustainable circular-economy solutions?

The circular economy, no matter from which angle you take it, is about innovation. It is about phasing out outdated but consolidated unsustainable options, and phasing in new, modern, sustainable solutions for the problems of tomorrow. With the Directive on single use plastics and fishing gear, the European Commission and the co-legislators have decided to send a message to stakeholders and consumers: single-use plastics items and the current throw-away culture belong to the past. To propose an ambitous yet balanced legislation, we had proposed different measures for each relevant item taking into account the consumer behaviour as well as consumer needs and opportunities for businesses. When alternatives are clearly available (both single use and multi-use) we have proposed market restrictions (such as cutlery).

Whereas when alternatives are not clearly available, we have introduced actions on labelling, awareness raising, extended producer responsibility, design requirements, and so on, depending on the item’s characteristics. We are confident that businesses will look at these developments as an opportunity to reduce the impact of plastics in the environment, and to improve the perception, by the public opinion, of plastics. Continually, the Directive will create new business models and innovation opportunities for alternative products that are multi-use, or that are made from materials with less environmental impact. It will also create market and innovation potential for the European bioeconomy.

In an interview with parliament magazine in 2017, you stated that “in order for the circular economy to be successful, waste legislation must be fully implemented across the EU”. Has this been successful so far, and do you think there is still more to be done in this area?

I certainly want to stress again the pivotal role of waste legislation implementation across the European Union. As you know, the revised waste legislation was adopted in 2018 and included new rules that will make the EU a global leader in recycling. For example, by 2030 at least 70% of all packaging waste in each EU country should be recycled. By 2035, all EU countries should recycle at least 65% and landfill should be less than 10% of municipal waste. Moreover, the implementation of the waste legislation at Member States level is ongoing, and it will continue during the current policy cycle as well as during the following ones. The situation in Member States is very diverse – ambitious actions and continuous cooperation between all levels of governments is the key recipe to success.

For municipal waste, in September 2018 half of EU Member States had been identified as at risk of missing the 2020 target of 50% preparation for re-use/recycling. For each of these countries, the Commission presented early warning reports which included a variety of possible actions to improve their waste management and ensure compliance with EU waste legislation, considering best practice from other countries, but also local circumstances.

Furthermore, we have organised several high-level events in EU Member States to identify the ideas and actions that can set circularity in motion at National level. Of course, let me add that the Commission is supporting Member States’ implementation through its EU funds, in particular concerning Cohesion Policy, and with other types of technical supports and instruments. We will continue supporting Member States in the implementation of the waste legislation and will review some pieces of legislation to increase their contribution to a circular economy. Most importantly, in synergy with actions on products, we will work to prevent the generation of waste – which is an area of actions where we should be more ambitious, since waste generation in Europe continues to grow.

Is there anything you would like to add in accordance to the circular economy and the EU?

I would like to highlight the importance of our new Circular Economy Action Plan, including a comprehensive list of actions to drive and accelerate the transition in Europe. This is a new milestone in Europe’s race to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, as mentioned in the new European Green Deal.  The action plan has included an initiative for a sustainable products framework, to ensure that affordable green products are the norm. This framework will address products placed on the EU market, with a view to extend their lifetime and reduce the environmental impacts derived from their manufacturing and use. In addition to this, the action plan will continue empowering consumers to contribute to a circular economy through an initiative to tackle misleading green claims and to provide consumers with information on the reparability and durability of products. We want them to start benefiting from a true ‘right to repair’. Furthermore, the action plan has also put the focus on transforming waste into resources & avoiding waste altogether.  The CEAP2 also presents initiatives for high impact sectors where the potential for greater circularity is high. For instance, in addition to plastics (e.g. implementation of the remaining actions of the Plastics Strategy), we will address textiles, construction and electronics among others. Finally, we will continue to support businesses with innovation and investments.

Daniel Calleja Y Crespo
Director-General for Environment
European Commission

Please note, this article will also appear in the first edition of our new quarterly publication.

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