During the last decade, waste in Europe has become a growing environmental and economic problem. Today, 9.6 million tonnes of plastics waste is still going to landfills in Europe every year. This staggering figure is equivalent to approximately €8bn/year for the EU28 plus Norway and Switzerland if we consider the value in terms of fossil fuels contained in these plastics.
This is why calling for a landfill ban of such materials that are recyclable or contain a calorific value makes sense both economically and environmentally. As the European commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries Karmenu Vella rightly highlighted, this is no longer a matter of choosing between economic growth and environmental protection, both must co-exist and we must integrate the two of them.
"Today, 9.6 million tonnes of plastics waste is still going to landfills in Europe every year. This staggering figure is equivalent to approximately €8bn/year for the EU28 plus Norway and Switzerland if we consider the value in terms of fossil fuels contained in these plastics"
In 2011, the European plastics industry launched the initiative 'zero plastics to landfill', which aims to reduce the amount of post-consumer plastics waste sent to landfills to zero by 2020. Seven EU member states, plus Norway and Switzerland, have already introduced landfill bans applicable to plastics waste, with Finland due to follow their lead in 2016.
The experience of these nine EU countries that already recover over 90 per cent of their post-consumer plastics waste demonstrates that while it is ambitious, zero plastics to landfill is a specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related (SMART) objective. The challenge is to put in place the right economic and political incentives in other member states.
In contrast, a number of European countries still rely heavily on the landfilling of plastics. The UK, Italy, Spain, France and Poland landfill around 7.5 million tonnes per year, approximately 80 per cent of all plastics sent to landfills in Europe.
In the context of the 'European roadmap to a resource efficient society', eliminating or reducing waste is vital. Responsible consumption, behavioural change and adequate waste management systems are crucial to eradicating the problem of landfilling.
I am encouraged to see new proposals from the European commission in their review of waste legislation to drive towards this goal by 2025. However, we must use the tools we already have. In this regard, I would encourage administrators to implement existing legislation to drive recyclable and other material out of landfills by 2020.
In fact, I believe that the only way we can truly move towards a resource efficient society is through better implementation and enforcement of existing waste legislation. A ban on, or at least a phase-out of the landfilling of recyclable and recoverable waste would stimulate the recycling and energy recovery of plastics waste that is unsuitable for recycling.
Plastics are often perceived as cheap and disposable materials and common misconceptions lead people to forget the many benefits that plastics provide to our society. Plastics contribute to energy savings; and their versatility, durability, capacity for innovation and cost-effectiveness are visible in almost every aspect of our daily life.
Furthermore, there are an increasing number of ways to continue to derive value from plastics at their end-of-life. Therefore, rather than burying such valuable resources, plastics waste can be recycled mechanically, depolymerised to become a new feedstock, or used to create electricity and heat.
To effectively protect our environment, we need to educate citizens so they understand that plastics are too valuable to be thrown away. We also need to ensure that adequate infrastructure is put in place by local authorities to support the sustainable management of this valuable resource.