Reducing plastic use begins with proper waste and material management

The EU must manage plastics in a sustainable and responsible way across the entire value chain, writes Mark Demesmaeker.

Mark Demesmaeker | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Mark Demesmaeker

06 Jul 2018

Plastic is an important and valuable material and has a useful place in our society and economy. However, the way in which plastics are produced and used is both unaffordable and unsustainable. Plastic is developed to last forever, yet is often still designed to be disposed of after use. Moreover, the collection of plastics for recycling remains low. This has significant drawbacks for our environment, climate, economy and potentially health.

There is now genuine political momentum, supported by citizens and civil society, to promote transformational change and shift to a circular economy for plastics. China’s recent decision to ban the import of plastic waste has forced the EU to act.

I strongly believe that the EU should view this ban as an opportunity to invest and innovate from within and stop outsourcing our plastic waste problem.


The key challenge is to manage plastics in a sustainable and responsible way across the entire value chain. The ‘European strategy for plastics in a circular economy’ should serve as a lever for stimulating new, smart and circular business and consumption models, offering tailored solutions and requiring joint commitments and actions by all stakeholders. By so doing, we can turn public concern on plastic waste into shared responsibility. 

What will it take to turn the tide? In my parliamentary report, I propose four building blocks: design for circularity, a single market for recycled plastics, prevention and innovation.

It all begins with proper waste and material management. The full and timely implementation of the EU rules on waste, including the significant improvements introduced by the recently-adopted revision of EU waste legislation will be a critical first step.

Furthermore, the Commission should revise the essential requirements for packaging to ensure that all plastic packaging placed on the European market can be cost-effectively reused or recycled by 2030. 

All industry stakeholders should deliver concrete measures to put this ambition into practice, not only for consumer packaging but also for the business-to-business sector, and should link their brand identity to sustainable and circular business models. Design for circularity should also apply to non-packaging plastic items, for example through the development of product standards.

We need a genuine single market for secondary plastics. The uptake of recycled plastics in new products remains low for numerous reasons, inter alia the mismatch between the quality of recycled plastics and the quality required for the functionality of a certain product. This is due to a lack of trust, verification and transparency. Therefore, quality standards and verification are required.

Furthermore, we must address recycled content better. Although I welcome the Commission’s voluntary approach, it may not be sufficient; mandatory rules for recycled content for specific plastic products may be needed. 

Extended producer responsibility, VAT modulations and circular procurement could further support the uptake of recycled plastic. It goes without saying that preventing plastic waste generation is of the utmost importance. 

The recent Commission proposal for reducing the impact on the environment of certain plastics, in particular those produced for single-use, is an important step on this issue. Over 80 per cent of marine litter comes from plastics, 50 per cent of which derives from single-use plastics. These numbers show that there are legitimate grounds to take action on such items. Parliament will define its position on this fi le in the coming months.

When discussing how to reduce and restrict single-use plastic items, bio-plastics also come into the picture. I believe that bio-plastics can be a supporting element in the transition to a circular economy, provided that certain caveats are respected. 

First, as there are many misunderstandings about biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics, the Commission should come forward with clear harmonised rules. 

Second, in order to seize the potential benefits, the Commission needs to develop clear criteria that define useful products and applications consisting of biodegradable plastics. I want to underline, however, that biodegradable plastics are no remedy against marine litter and still require proper waste management.

Third, bio-based plastics offer the potential for partial feedstock differentiation and can thus decrease the EU’s resource dependency on third countries. Therefore, they can also be part of a broader solution where shown beneficial from a life-cycle perspective. Further investment in R&D in this area will be key in spurring innovation. 

Innovation, research and development, as well as further investments in infrastructure are critical if the EU wants to succeed in developing a new plastics economy. The Commission’s plan to invest an additional €100m to drive investment towards circular solutions under Horizon 2020 is encouraging, but we need to look beyond 2020.

We must to use this momentum to invest and innovate. If we succeed in developing a holistic approach covering the entire value chain through circular business and consumption models, we can create a win-win situation for all stakeholders involved. We can turn plastic wastelands into fields of gold.


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