The findings come after the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics was recently adopted by the European Commission as part of the transition towards a more circular economy.
The strategy seeks to protect the environment from plastic pollution.
Under the new plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable or re-usable by 2030. Today, the figure is less than 30 per cent.
The report, by the Commission’s environment directorate, says plastic is a “relatively cheap, durable and versatile” material.
It adds, “Plastic products have brought benefits to society in terms of economic activity, jobs and quality of life. Plastics can even help reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in many circumstances, even in some packaging applications when compared to the alternatives.”
It goes on, “However, plastic waste also imposes negative environmental externalities. It is usually non-biodegradable and therefore can remain as waste in the environment for a very long time; it may pose risks to human health as well as the environment; and it can be difficult to reuse and/or recycle in practice.”
It points out that an issue of particular concern is that “giant masses” of plastic waste have been discovered in the North Atlantic and Pacific, “the full environmental impacts of which are not yet fully understood but which cause severe damage to seabirds, marine mammals and fish.”
The report outlines trends in plastic waste generation and management and proposes five policy options that it says “could change that scenario.”
The report states, “Plastic waste generation is set to continue growing and the development of new materials continues apace. Bioplastics are growing extremely rapidly but from a very small base, and further research into life-cycle environmental impacts is needed.
“As for recycling, it is also expected to grow in absolute terms and innovate technologically, but it will not keep up on current trends and so other solutions are needed.”
A mix of policy initiatives are needed, it argues, including sustainable packaging guidelines (1); agricultural plastic recovery and recycling guidelines (2); waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and automotive plastic waste targets (3); recycled plastics and bioplastics phasing targets (4) and research innovation on the reduction of plastic waste (5).
The report says, “Of these, the first, second and fourth policy options were judged to be the most appropriate and effective ones.
“Option 1 would be likely to have the most significant effect on plastic waste reduction and recovery because it targets packaging. Although the impact of option 2 may be small, this has the advantage of targeting a distinct sector and a particular type of material.
“Still, the difficulties of collection in rural areas must be taken into account. As for option 4, the main effect would be to reduce the amount of petroplastics sent to disposal.”
It adds, “The policy options are not mutually exclusive and would complement each other well.
“Whichever mix of policy options might be chosen, more complete and timely data on plastics generation and waste is also needed to help policy makers to respond effectively. Better information would also aid the design of consumer awareness campaigns regarding appropriate use and disposal of plastics and bioplastics.
“Improved awareness is vital to the successful implementation of policy in this domain.”
The Commission says that demand for plastics in Europe reached 49 million tonnes in 2015.
It says high landfill rates, leakages into the ecosystem and potential health risks make it imperative to rethink the plastics economy.
A Commission spokesperson said the plastics strategy, unveiled last month, aims to increase the quantity, quality and uptake of recycled plastics, reduce plastic waste and leakage, promote innovation and investment in circular solutions and support international action.
“Achieving these objectives will require collective involvement from all stakeholders and action at all stages, from design to consumption and waste management,” he said.