European Files Paper: Recycling of plastics – key element of the circular economy

European Files Paper: Recycling of plastics – key element of the circular economy

The European Union has taken the priority to use materials more effi- ciently with the presentation of the action plan on the transition to circular economy in 2015. The aim is to reduce material intensity as well as to prevent the waste production and to treat waste in more sustainable and economically meaningful way. Plastic waste represent substantial challenge in this context. More than 25 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced in the Union every year. It represents one of the largest and the fastest growing categories of waste in Europe. Moreover the demand for plastic has been increasing over the years too due to its wide range of use in various sectors and industries.

At the same time, only approximately 30 percent of plastic waste is collected and recycled which is indeed very low gure. e remaining volume of plastic is incinerated, landfilled or littered, hence, contributing to large environmental problems such as greenhouse gas emissions, local pollution or marine litter. For example, 4 percent of the plastics production end up in the oceans every year, damaging the maritime ecosystems and negatively a ecting communities dependent on fisheries or tourism. Another example of the environmental impact of the unsus- tainable practices in plastic waste treatment is the fact that its incineration represents around one percent of global CO2 emissions. Simply by eliminating this practice we would be able to cut the emissions by 400 million tonnes a year.

It is evident that we need to adopt more sustainable ways we use plastic. Our priority should be to prevent the waste production, therefore, to support reuse of the plastic products which goes hand in hand with their better design. Also it will be important to limit the consumption of “single-use” plastics. ere has been some progress when it comes for example to plastic backs. However, we will have to focus on other items such as small packaging, disposable cups, lids, cutlery and other products of everyday use.

Nonetheless, it will not be possible to eliminate plastic waste production at all. For this reason, the new European plastic strategy will have to focus in particular on recycling. There is still substantial potential for improvement. As it has been already mentioned, almost 70 percent of the plastic waste is incinerated or landfilled, hence the material is lost for secondary use. e current practices are therefore highly ine cient from the economic and environmental point of view. There are two issues which will have to be addressed in order to improve the sit- uation. First, the European Union will have to support the market for secondary plastics. At the moment the demand for recycled plastics is approximately 6 percent of overall demand for plastics in the Union. Instead the majority of the plastic waste is exported and treated in third countries, for example China. e aim of the strategy should be to stimulate innovation in this sector, to increase the potential of the use of plastics as secondary material and to improve the design of products to make them more recyclable. Investments in new recycling and production capacities will have to be supported while at the same time product manufactures will have be stimulated to take more recycled plastics and integrate it into their production processes. For this purpose, economic instruments to reward the use of recycled material should be developed at the level of both the European Union and the Member States.

However, we will have to focus on the consumers and their behaviour too. With substantial amount of plastic to be mixed with other communal waste, it makes it more difficult and more expensive to separate it from other materials. Therefore, the con- sumers should be motivated to change their behaviour and attitudes to waste. More active information campaigns and education focused on more responsible handling of the waste will be important part of our future plastic strategy. Another possibility how consumers can play an active role in changing the situation is by changing their shopping behaviour. If con- sumers demand that products they purchase contain recycled plastics, the manufactures will have to re ect it in their design.

It is more than clear that tackling the issue of plastic waste will not be easy and will require various actions that will address di erent parts of the problem. However, we cannot achieve truly circular economy if we will keep irre- trievably losing two-thirds of plastic waste on land lls or in incineration plants.

Miroslav POCHE
MEP (S&D Group), Member of the ITRE Committee