EU aims to reduce 'dramatic consequences' of plastic waste

Janez Potočnik explains the commission's plans to improve the way Europe deals with plastic waste.

By Janez Potocnik

11 Mar 2014

Looking back at the 20th century, future historians might well decide to call it the age of plastic. Modern life is almost unthinkable without it, but that utility comes at a price. The characteristics that make it so useful, its durability, light weight and low cost, also make it problematic when it comes to the end of its useful life.

Very often, the material itself has a far greater lifespan than the manufactured product. At the same time, the low cost of plastic is leading us to use more and more, in products with ever-shorter lives. We are all familiar with the mountains of plastic waste and litter springing up all over the globe as a result.

But the omnipresence of this waste hides a simple truth. It is a resource and an important one too. Europe produces around 60 million tonnes of plastic every year, a high proportion of it is used for packaging, and far too much of it is wasted. Nearly half of all our production ends up in landfill sites. That is equivalent to 12 million tonnes of crude oil being buried in the ground, and only a very small fraction is currently recycled. That needs to change, if we want to go on enjoying the benefits of plastic we must learn how to manage it.

There will be huge benefits, both economic and environmental, to enhanced recycling. We will use resources more efficiently, thus preparing for future shortages. We will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lower imports of raw materials and fossil fuels. 
According to estimates a 70 per cent recycling rate for plastics would create 160,000 jobs in recycling by 2020. Biodegradable plastics and bioplastics are not a simple solution, and can cause other problems and challenges, particularly when they enter recycling streams. They need to be looked at carefully on a case-by-case basis.

"The massive pollution of world oceans with plastic debris is a global challenge, and it requires a global response"

What makes things worse is that much of the plastic we throw away at present is not properly collected, sorted and treated, or even correctly landfilled. All too often it ends up in the seas and oceans, where it stays for many decades, with dramatic consequences for our sea life.

Scientists have already found areas in the oceans where the concentration of microplastics is six times higher than the concentration of plankton. That's plastic ready to be ingested by sea fauna, and ultimately by us.

The massive pollution of world oceans with plastic debris is a global challenge, and it requires a global response. But someone needs to lead the change. The EU should become a showcase for how to build a coherent strategy to tackle marine litter and optimise the management of plastic waste.

Plastic carrier bags are a major component in this marine pollution. In the EU, billions of these disposable items end up as litter every year. It is not surprising that in our recent consultation on plastic waste there was widespread support for European action to tackle this problem. This is why the commission recently adopted a proposal to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags.

The plan we are suggesting, which aims to prevent waste and reduce the littering problem at the same time, has two strands. One obliging member states to take action to reduce their consumption of lightweight plastic bags, and the other intended to ensure the planned reductions become a reality.

While the proposal does not prescribe specific measures or a target, it does highlight the important role various instruments play in reducing the consumption of plastic bags. You do not have to look far; some member states have already achieved spectacular reductions through rather simple measures.

That said, there is nothing to prevent the commission from considering an EU-wide reduction target in the future, if this proposal does not bring the expected results.

Plastic, of course, is only one waste stream, and the commission is working on a number of other waste initiatives with a view to transforming the EU into a more circular economy, where the waste we cannot avoid is used as a resource and pumped back into productive use.

In particular, we are reviewing the targets in three waste directives, the packaging and packaging waste directive, the landfill directive, and the waste framework directive itself. Our aims are to maximise recycling and reuse, limit incineration to non-recyclable materials and, last but not least, phase out landfilling altogether, apart from residuals of non-recyclable and non-recoverable waste.

These broad objectives were already set out in the general union environment action programme to 2020, and the resource efficiency roadmap. So we have a busy few months ahead.

Finally, waste is a local and national issue and I would like to see informed debates at local and national levels on waste management. I want people to ask why we have waste at all. In order to find solutions for how we turn waste into a resource and move towards a circular economy in Europe, we also need to motivate and mobilise as many citizens as possible.

That is why I have challenged all Europeans, individuals and NGOs, to get out and clean up their cities, forests or beaches on or around 10 May during 'let's clean up Europe" day. I hope to see you among the volunteers.