Plastics Strategy for Europe – What is it?
We woke up on 2018 with the news of China banning the import of low quality waste and of plastic waste already piling up on the UK as a consequence. This hasn’t been the only news to come up regarding the plastic waste problem. A UK food retailer, Iceland Foods (sales: 2,9b€ in 2017), has taken the lead on the plastic pollution fight and is phasing out all fossil fuel plastic packaging from its branded products, swapping it for pulp based trays and paper bags. Other giants are commiting to the same standards, McDonalds is phasing out all styrofoam packaging by the end of 2018 and UK’s retailer Waitrose is removing plastic straws for sale in all its stores.
What it’s exactly happening with the plastic packaging industry?
Global plastic production has increased 20x since the 1960s. EU plastics demand in 2015 was 49 million tonnes, 39,9% was for the packaging industry. Yet, the demand for recycled plastic was only around 6%.
Today, 95% of plastic value is lost after its first use. Big loads of this plastic end up in the World Oceans (around 5-13 million tonnes annually), just in Europe it is estimated that the equivalent to 66.000 rubbish trucks are being dumped every year. All this is causing great harm to our fisheries catch and tourism activity.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
On 2016 The Ellen MacArthur Foundation published its first New Plastics Economy report where it set the basis for the development of a plastics economy that works for our society and planet. From that study came the, now famous, fact that if we continue with our actual plastics system in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our Oceans.
The initiative was backed by big brand owners like Unilever, Danone or Coca-Cola. They also made their own sustainability commitments regarding their own packaging.
Last year they released a second report, deploying three main lines of action which will help catalyse this New Plastics Economy.
The work from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is based on different schools of thought being the principal one, Cradle to Cradle Design. The adoption of this new Plastics Economy has served as a guidance for the Plastics Strategy presented last tuesday January 16th on the European Parlament.
“We must stop plastics getting into our water, our food, and even our bodies. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more.” – Frans Timmermmans
PLASTICS STRATEGY: INNOVATION, DESIGN AND RECYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE
The strategy document is a 16 page text which starts by accounting the problem and the reasons we need to reconsider the whole system. After this the document lays down the vision for 2030 with the following key points:
- All packaging in the EU must be recyclable or reusable at a cost effective price
- Plastics recycling rates are equivalent to other materials
- Recycling capacity of plastic has increased 4x and 200.000 new jobs have been created.
- Low Quality plastics export is virtually nonexistent.
- The chemical industry works closely with the recycling industry to help them find higher value applications for their output.
- Demand for recycled plastic packaging has increased 4x from its 2015 levels.
- Europe’s dependence on imported fossil fuel is reduced and cut CO2 emissions.
- Market for recycled and innovative plastics is well established and most products contain recycled plastic content.
- Innovative solutions are created to stop microplastics leaking in the Oceans.
To make this vision a reality, the EU Comission developed three main action lines which we follow to summarize:
1. Improving the economics and quality of plastics recycling
Better Design Practices
- Focus: Improve the way plastics are designed and formulated to make them easier to recycle and have better traceability on their actual components.
- Main actions: Working together with the industries involved they are asking them to come up with voluntary concrete commitments to back the vision for 2030. Also new rules on waste management will follow, encouraging investment on recycling capacity and avoiding infrastructural overcapacity for incineration. Revision of the essential requirements for placing packaging on the market, with the objective of making all packaging recyclable cost-effectively by 2030.
- Expected outcomes: Better design choices could reduce the recycling cost of plastic packaging by 50%
Boosting demand for recycled plastics
The ban of China will affect significantly the offer of plastic waste in the EU. Europe exported to China 85% of its plastic waste, now all this is piling up on our waste management facilities waiting to be sent somewhere.
- Focus: The presence of chemicals of concerns is a problem and can discourage the demand for recycled plastics.
- Main actions:The commission will work with the European Committee for Standardisation and the industry to develop a quality standards for sorted plastic waste and recycled plastics.Finalising the authorisation procedures for over a hundred safe recycling processes that will authorise the use of recycled plastics on food contact applications. The EU will finance research and innovation projects on better identification of contaminants and on decontamination of plastic waste through Horizon 2020. The Comission will also consider using economic instruments to reward the use of recycled materials on packaging applications and to include this on the Green Public Procurement Criteria
- Expected outcomes: Integration between the recycling sector and the chemical sector. This is crucial to reach higher quality standards like, food grade applications. Provide a clear and reliable framework for investment and innovation on the plastics recycling sector
Better separate collection and sorting
- Focus: Improve the collection and sorting of plastics
- Main actions: Use of EPR (Extended Producer Responsability) as financial resources to improve these systems. Deposit schemes can contribute to achieving very high levels of recycling
- Expected outcomes: New guidance on separate collection and sorting of waste, this is to be released on 2019
2. Curbing plastic waste and littering
Preventing plastic waste in our environment
- Giving more importance to EPR schemes,including reusable items in the criteria for the Ecolabel and Green Public Procurement conditions.
- Work to determine the scope of a legislative initiative for single-use plastics and over-packaging.
- EPR with deposit schemes to prevent littering
- Awareness campaigns and projects to clean up beaches can be set up and receive support from EU funds, for example, through the Solidarity Corps.
- A legislative proposal on port reception facilities. This is already under revision on the Parlament. Can include deposit schemes along with EPR schemes and recyclability targets.
Establishing a clear regulatory framework for plastics with biodegradable properties
The Commission will propose harmonised rules for defining and labelling compostable and biodegradable plastics as well. The need for a separate collection system for organic waste is essential. Work to restrict Oxo-degradable plastics is already being down via REACH.
The rising problems of microplastics
The phasing out of microbeads is already ongoing via REACH. For textiles, tyres and other types of products a Cross Industry Agreement will be developed during 2018, this will result in more restrictions and regulations for the industries to ensure microplastics release is reduced.
3. Driving innovation and investment towards circular solutions
Meeting all this ambitious goals needs of major investing. Just for the goals established for plastic recycling need between 8,4 and 16,6 billion EUR investment.
European businesses need to invest in the future and affirm their leadership. The Commission is specially interested on:
- New innovative materials that are fully biodegradable in seawater and freshwater and harmless for the environment and ecosystems.
- New business models and further scientific research is needed too to understand the health impacts of microplastics and develop better monitoring tools.
- Bio-based feedstocks represent right now only 0,5-1% of plastics consumption in Europe and the Commission is looking to support the development of alternative feedstock for plastic production.
100M€ allocated for developing smarter and more recyclable plastics materials, making recycling processes more efficient and tracing and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics. An agenda for Strategic Research and Innovation on plastics will be developed on the second quarter of 2018 to guide future research.
Lack of investment on recycling facilities comes from the uncertainty investors have from the market.
Comments and conclusions
Climate change mitigation
These actions will help mitigate the CO2 emissions and fight climate change as the carbon management is properly done with the recycling of plastics (durable carbon), the use of compostable materials for the single-use packaging (living carbon) and the minimization of landfilling and incineration (fugitive carbon).
A Cradle to Cradle® perspective
Europe’s perspective and approach is clear and aligned with the principles of the Cradle to Cradle® Design:
- Design healthy and safe products
- Design for circularity (technical or biological nutrients) and make sure these ones are circulated
- Use clean, renewable energies and protect water resources
As Cradle to Cradle® experts we are thrilled for the times to come. The packaging industry, as the strategy outlines has been innovating and adding chemicals and materials without much thought on how these ones are going to affect the users or the environment and now we face a problem with these chemicals that are entering the food chain.
Boosting confidence for investment
The first actions from this strategy are created to boost the confidence of investors on the recycling industry, we believe this needs to go hand by hand by more transparency and design guidelines. The “Circular Economy Finance Support Platform”, launched recently, will help raise awareness among investors and facilitate access to finance for circular economy projects.
Check the deadlines of the strategies here