Towards a European 'endless plastics' strategy

In order to work in the long-term, EU waste policy must be firmly anchored in a circular economy, says Kathleen Van Brempt.

Kathleen Van Brempt | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Kathleen Van Brempt

23 Feb 2017

A few years ago, Dutch teenager Boyan Slat developed a method to clean the world's oceans from plastic waste, while working on a school project. His method involves an array of long floating barriers to let the ocean currents capture the plastic itself. 

But Slat knows all too well that his technology is a short term end-of-life solution and that upstream changes in product design and producer responsibility are necessary to reach long-term solutions.

Plastics are a good example of what goes wrong with our linear take-make-dispose economy. Some 98 per cent of our plastics are produced using virgin feedstocks; only two per cent are recycled in a closed loop. More than half of the plastics put on the world market are landfilled or incinerated. Almost one third ends up as litter on land or in the oceans.


The way plastics are produced, used and disposed of causes a depletion of our finite resources (oil), a waste of energy (recycling one tonne of plastics requires less energy than producing it from virgin feedstocks) and a disruption of our ecosystems.

If we want to end the wasteful use of resources, we must evolve to a real circular economy, where plastic material streams are recycled endlessly.

Until now, EU policies have focused, to a large extent, on the waste stage of plastics. The EU is quite successful in the diversion of plastic waste from landfill sites. 

The waste framework directive and the specific directives on the end-of-life treatment have established a waste management hierarchy which favours prevention, reuse and recycling above energy recovery and landfill. This has sparked separate collection, dismantling, mechanical separation and recycling activities all over Europe.

But until now, European waste policy has been mostly supply-driven. This has resulted in huge masses of secondary raw materials, a large part of which is shipped outside Europe to be recycled under less stringent conditions, resulting in a degradation of materials and in down-cycling spirals instead of being preserved in a closed up-cycling and remanufacturing loop.

To be able to close the loop, our waste policies must be embedded into a circular economy policy that focuses on the whole lifecycle of products. 

Therefore, traditional waste polices must be complemented by product and (re)manufacturing policies that preserve valuable high quality materials in closed loops, creating an EU-wide market for high end recycling.

Recycled content standards might be combined with tradable recycling certificates that allow manufacturers able to attain higher yields of recycled secondary raw materials to sell their excess certificates to manufacturers with difficulties in meeting the minimal recycled content targets.

These kinds of market-based production-oriented instruments should be part of the upcoming plastics strategy announced in the Commission's circular economy package. 

Similar to European policy on renewable energy - which started with targets for minimal shares of renewables and national subsidy schemes to meet them - the plastics strategy should 'create' the market for the high-end recycling of plastics.

Once the new technologies mature, this new market can stand on its own, without subsidies or support. But the focus must now shift from the end-of-life cycle to the beginning.


Read the most recent articles written by Kathleen Van Brempt - Effort sharing decision proposal to help EU deliver on COP21 commitments