Europe generates roughly 26 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, of which less than 30 per cent gets recycled. Parliament’s January Strasbourg session saw the launch of the Commission’s plastics strategy, something first mentioned in the December 2015 EU action plan for a circular economy.
The aim is simple - to reduce waste and keep the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible. It addresses recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances in plastics and - a hot topic in recent years - reducing marine litter.
The EU remains a world leader when it comes to progressive and forward-thinking environmental policy and this new strategy is no exception. The difficulty here will be balancing the undeniable need for change with the potential loss of jobs that such change entails; there are 1.5 million EU citizens employed in manufacturing those 26 million tonnes of plastics.
The financial incentive for change should help make this an easier pill to swallow; the Commission estimates we suffer an economic loss of €100bn per year through plastic packaging alone.
It also says that cutting our dependence on imported fossil fuel and the introduction of new recycling schemes and infrastructure could create 200,000 jobs by 2030 across Europe. In addition, EU consumers are becoming far more ethically-minded over the products they buy; we have seen numerous petitions with cross-party support in the Parliament on issues such as microplastics.
I was pleased that the idea of a plastics tax, as proposed by European budget and human resources Commissioner Günther Oettinger, was not included in the plastics strategy.
While the idea is not without its merits, I believe this is something that should be decided at a national level. Such a move from the Commission could have backfired badly.
Recently, we have seen cities banning the use of disposable plastic bags in efforts to reduce waste. It is my belief that measures such as these, combined with increasing levels of recycling, can help to combat this issue.
There are many strident voices calling on all of us to drastically reduce or eliminate our use of plastics. While I see the attraction of this approach, I would sound a note of caution.
Frankly, I am worried about food safety and food waste. The use of plastics for food contact materials, delivering the benefits of prolonged freshness, reducing cross-contamination and providing damage-free delivery to the consumer should not be undervalued.
This plastics strategy has to be the vehicle for promoting and enabling a whole new attitude to recycling throughout the food chain, from the farmer to the consumer. Innovation can provide solutions for helping tackle environmental problems.
Therefore, I welcomed the announcement of an additional €100m of financing for developing smarter and more recyclable plastic materials, making recycling processes more efficient and tracing and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics.
It was also encouraging to hear both Commissioners Timmermans and Katainen make reference to the need for increasing investment in technology at the launch. It has taken time, but the EU finally seems ready to respond to the urgency of the plastics issue.