Plastics in a circular economy: the European approach

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, speaks to INN about the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.

The European Commission adopted the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy in January 2018. The strategy was created to transform the way plastic products are designed, produced and recycled. The key driver behind the strategy is innovation. Europe must be more innovative in the manufacture and break down of plastics in order to close the loop. For the protection of our oceans and our environment, we must find a way to make plastics circular. This is the ideology behind the single-use plastics directive of the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.

Innovation News Network speaks to Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, one year on from the adoption of the strategy to outline the policies that have been beneficial to the re-invention and reduction of plastics across Europe. Commissioner Vella also outlines how the EU and Member States can do more to solve the issue at hand.

What kind of opportunities will closing the loop on plastics bring to Europe, and how can we engage with these?

Every year, Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30% is collected for recycling. 95% of the value of plastic packaging – worth some €70-105 billion – is lost to the economy every year. It is quite clear where some of the easy wins are.

Europe adopted a new strategy for plastics in a circular economy in January 2018. The idea is to modernise the industry, improving plastics and plastic products design, to boosting reuse and recycling as well as demand for recycled plastics and more sustainable materials. That will help EU businesses develop global leadership in high-tech materials and recycling.

Innovation will bring more sustainable products and business models and will contribute to the EU’s lead in the bio economy; more take-back and re-use schemes should create local jobs. But the overarching aim is to enable the economies of scale that we need to really transform the industry.

We need to invest now, so that we can recycle this waste in Europe. Diverting waste to developing countries that lack the infrastructure to handle it is not an option. The solution has to be found here in Europe and our strategy puts in place conditions to make that possible.

When you say that we will achieve the targets set out by the Strategy for Plastics by ‘rethinking plastics’, what is the Commission currently doing to encourage more innovation and research into this ‘rethinking’ process?

It is clear that we need more investment. There are knowledge gaps that need to be filled, and more research needs to be done so that innovative solutions can reach the demonstration phase. Therefore, we have included a substantial financial component in the strategy. This year we are developing a Strategic Research Innovation Agenda for Plastics, and by 2020, the EU will have invested more than €350 million in plastics innovation. Under the Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, an additional €100 million will be allocated to fund smarter and more recyclable plastics materials, more efficient recycling processes, and tracing and removing hazardous substances from recycled plastics, all under Horizon 2020 – the EU fund for research and development.

There isn’t a simple fix. You need better design, and better sorting, so that when plastics are recycled, there is less contamination between different types of plastics. And you need good quality recyclables. When we spoke to European Plastic Recyclers, they told us that the biggest barrier to more widespread uptake of recycled plastic is the low quality of recycled plastic materials. More than half of Europe’s plastic converters are having problems finding a high-quality supply. They want to use more, but they cannot get the materials. That is why we are bringing better quality standards as well.

How can we address the concerns that surface around plastics in a circular economy – for example, the chemical composition of recycled plastics or the problems with Europe’s current collecting and sorting systems?

Part of the solution is going to be a revision of the legal requirements for placing packaging on the market. To me, it would be quite logical if products and packaging that are easier to recycle paid a lower fee than others.

This could lead to the use of fewer polymers, and better sorting and recycling technologies. Using fewer additives and less black plastics would also make recycling easier. Technological solutions like this already exist, so we just need to find ways to boost their use. But we are also supporting innovative solutions for advanced sorting, chemical recycling and polymer design.

Under the Eco-Design Directive, we are committed to including elements like recyclability and durability, reparability, upgradeability, design for disassembly, information, and ease of reuse and recycling for electric and electronic equipment. That should make a big difference in the longer term. And we are combing through the standards in the construction and the automotive sectors, looking for places where recyclability requirements for plastics in a circular economy might be appropriate. The EU Ecolabel and Green Public Procurement criteria already include plastics recyclability. Therefore, there is a lot going on already.

What is the Commission doing to improve business engagement with the circular economy and recycled plastics and packaging across Europe?

When we launched the strategy for plastics in a circular economy back in January 2018, one of the headline targets was a commitment to make all plastic packaging on the EU market recyclable by 2030. The plastics industry has been very interested, and many companies have announced that they will improve recycling of packaging material. To build on that engagement, we launched a pledging campaign at the same time, asking stakeholders to come out with voluntary pledges to boost the uptake of recycled plastics.

We had received over 60 pledges by the end of October, and we are now reviewing them to analyse their impact per plastic types on supply and demand aspects. The main pledges came from plastics recyclers, industry associations for Expanded Polystyrene and brand owners for PET packaging.

There was a lot of interest from industry to take voluntary action by using more recycled plastics, although almost all the pledges include some conditions. Our initial assessment shows that we are falling short of the target of 10 million tonnes of recycled material in new products, as far as commitments by users and brand producers are concerned, but I expect demand for recycled plastics in a circular economy to increase fairly quickly if good quality material becomes available in stable quantities and at competitive prices.

What more can we do as European citizens to help transform our planet and work toward a more circular mode of operation?

It is time to walk away from single-use plastics, and it will be much easier than people think. Not so long ago, we all used hundreds of single-use plastic bags every year. Now their use is plummeting, as we all switch to reusable ones. We hope that the same thing will happen after our proposal on single-use plastics and fishing gear is approved. That is EU legislation at its best – simple and highly effective.

I hope the same thing happens after our proposal on fishing gear and single-use plastics in a circular economy is approved, and we see huge changes in a short space of time for drinks bottles, food wrapping, plastic straws, cigarette butts and so on. There’s always another way. We can do it, and people know it is time for a change.

We are very encouraged by the social media reaction to the strategy for plastics in a circular economy and our single-use plastics proposal. In just six weeks, around 600 articles were published in seven countries, with no negative articles tracked. The media campaign launched with the proposal had more than 10 million views, and we reached 20 million users in seven weeks on social media.

Last of all, I would encourage everyone to get involved. The more people take part in beach clean-ups, the more we spread awareness about the problem, and the more we build pressure for change. We will not solve these things by sitting around. It is time for action, time to stand up for the seas.

Karmenu Vella

Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

European Commission

Tweet @KarmenuVella

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