Plastic waste is a problem that the EU must overcome

We can't get rid of plastic completely, therefore it's time for the EU to develop a true recycling culture, argues Cătălin Sorin Ivan.

Catalin Sorin Ivan | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Catalin Sorin Ivan

23 Feb 2017

Plastic - invented in the 19th century - has for many decades been regarded as a remarkable material, making life so much easier that we could not imagine living without it. Not only is it lightweight and low-cost, it is also durable. However, in time, this asset has revealed damaging side effects.

It is now impossible to consider plastic as environmentally friendly, for the simple reason that most of it is non-biodegradable and persists in the environment for centuries. Bacteria do not digest plastic. Recycling implies a complicated sorting process, as metal and plastic are often collected together.

Plastic recycling rates are far below those of other materials, but in the long-term, giving up plastic completely is not the answer. Bioplastics, a relative novelty, are biodegradable, but also more expensive.


According to the European Commission, in the EU, out of the 16 tonnes of material that are used per person per year, six tonnes become waste. Among them, plastic waste - affecting land and rivers - is one of the most serious problems that authorities face.

The waste framework directive, adopted in 2008, was an important step, describing basic waste management principles and underlining the important role of prevention. 

In 2013, the Commission launched the green paper on a European strategy on plastic waste in the environment, pointing out the potential economic benefits of increased recycling rates, and admitting that particular challenges are not specifically addressed in EU waste legislation.

The latest revision of the packaging waste directive, in 2015, aims to limit the production of packaging waste and to encourage the promotion of recycling, reuse and other forms of waste recovery. 

It underpins that the final disposal of plastic materials should only be considered as a last resort. However, the general overview is that recycling rates are simply too low and a review of the legislation should impose higher rates, which could create more jobs.

One answer to these problems is the circular economy. Turning waste into a resource is quintessential to a circular economy, which sets important incentives to improve waste management, new approaches to recycling, and progressive changes in consumer behaviour. The transition to a circular economy is a growing necessity and requires a comprehensive and ambitious European legal framework.

The EU could develop a proper recycling culture. Japan, for example, has a system that might seem complicated, but its results are impressive, due to public awareness. With Japan's model in mind and the help of local authorities, European citizens could develop such a culture and achieve the same results.

I believe the EU should build a coherent strategy towards a successful plastic waste policy. It is important that local and regional authorities take a strategic approach and develop their local or regional circular economy strategies for this purpose. Therefore, a review of the existing legislation is necessary, next to a gradual development of a proper recycling culture.