Commission presents EU plastics strategy

The European Commission has unveiled its long-awaited strategy on plastic waste.

Plastic bottles | Photo credit: Fotolia

Part of the transition to a circular economy, the strategy lays out measures to cut plastic packaging and plastic waste.

It was prepared by Commissioners Frans Timmermans, Jyrki Katainen, Karmenu Vella and Elżbieta Bieńkowska and focuses on incentives to make the design of plastics better so that recycling (especially of single-use plastics, 90 per cent of which are not recycled) is easier.

The strategy is due to be debated by MEPs in Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.


Figures show that plastics production is 20 times higher than in 1960s, and is forecast to almost quadruple by 2050. Although there are thousands of types of plastics, 90 per cent of plastics are derived from virgin fossil fuels.

About six per cent of global oil consumption is used to produce plastics; by 2050, this share could reach 20 per cent.

In Europe, about 40 per cent of post-consumer plastic waste is incinerated with energy recovery, and the rest is either landfilled or recycled. About half of the plastic waste collected and recycled is treated in the European Union; the other half is exported, mainly to China.

Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, said, “With our plastic strategy we are laying the foundations for a new circular plastics economy, and driving investment towards it. 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 European industry to develop global leadership in new technology and materials. Consumers are empowered to make conscious choices in favour of the environment. This is true win-win.”

Under the strategy, new rules on packaging will be developed to improve the recyclability of plastics used on the market and increase the demand for recycled plastic content. 

New rules will also be introduced to curb the use of microplastics in products, and fix labels for biodegradable and compostable plastics.

Additionally, the Commission will put forward new rules to tackle marine litter, while reducing the administrative burden on ports, ships and competent authorities. 

In an effort to support investment and innovation, €100m will be made available to finance the development of smarter, more recyclable plastics materials, making recycling processes more efficient, and tracing and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics.

The Commission’s proposals have generally been praised by MEPs. The EPP group said, “Plastics make up more than 85 per cent of our litter. We need a new plastics economy, otherwise by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Our MEPs support decisions that protect the environment by building on technological innovation and create new jobs.”

Speaking ahead of the strategy launch, S&D group Vice-Chair Kathleen Van Brempt said, “The EU is the first to make such a move and we should be proud of that because this is very important. If we don’t do something soon we will have more plastic than fish in the seas.

“We need to do more to make sure plastic is re-useable and can be recycled. And we need to say to people that it is no longer acceptable to use plastic bags.”

Writing recently in the Parliament Magazine, she said, “Plastics are a good example of what goes wrong with our linear take-make-dispose economy. Some 98 per cent of our plastics are produced using virgin feedstocks; only two per cent are recycled in a closed loop. More than half of the plastics put on the world market are landfilled or incinerated. Almost one third ends up as litter on land or in the oceans.”

As part of its ‘circular economy’ package, the European Commission presented in December 2015 an action plan for the circular economy.

The action plan presented measures in five priority sectors, among which plastics. The Commission pledged specifically to undertake the following actions: develop a strategy on plastics in the circular economy (by 2017); and take specific action to reduce marine litter with a view to implementing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (from 2015 onwards).

In a resolution of 14 January 2014 on plastic waste in the environment, Parliament called for binding targets for collection, sorting and recycling, as well as mandatory criteria for plastics recyclability.

It advocated recycling as the best option to meet environmental targets, and urged that plastic waste be used for energy recovery only in cases where all other possibilities have been exhausted.

It also called for phasing out the most dangerous plastics and those which contain substances hampering recycling processes.


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