Future Plastic Waste Strategy

European business has a chance to influence EU plastics waste policy, via a public consultation launched last week by the European Commission.

The Commission is hinting that future EU legislation may include the promotion or restriction of certain kinds of plastics, new rules on the disposal of plastic waste, restrictions on landfills and the promotion of recycling and recovery.

With the consultation, which will last until the beginning of June 2013, the Commission aims to gather industry views on achieving sustainable plastic products and reducing their impact on the environment.

The consultation forms part of a recently Commission Green Paper on plastics waste, which briefly outlines possible policy options.

Context

Plastic is a cheap, durable and versatile product. Its use has grown hugely over the past century, creating specific challenges for waste management. Although being a fully recyclable material, only a small fraction of plastic waste is at present recycled.

Once in the environment - particularly in the sea - plastic waste can persist for hundreds of years. Up to 10 million tons of litter, mostly plastic, end up in the world's oceans and seas annually, turning them into the world's biggest plastic dump.

Conventional plastic also contains a large number, and sometimes a large proportion of chemical additives which can be carcinogenic, provoke other toxic reactions or act as endocrine disruptors. Plastic can split into small and fine particles (micro plastics), which can be mistaken for food and ingested by marine fauna, thus entering the food chain. 

The Green Paper

The Commission consultation is seeking views and opinions in a number of areas.

Waste Recycling

The first question posed in the consultation regards the possibility of dealing with plastic within the existing legislative framework, or through the adaptation of the existing legislation.

Recycling of plastic waste is a better option than energy recovery or landfilling, says the Commission. To reduce the use of landfills, a gradual phasing out or a ban could be established. However, this could lead to more waste energy recovery. In order to promote recycling over waste energy recovery, measures on separate collection, sorting and material recovery should be adopted.

The Commission also asks stakeholders on the best way to promote recycling on plastic, ensuring competitiveness and growth; the adequacy of establishing a landfill ban or landfill taxes to promote plastic re-use and recovery; the adequacy of establishing a tax for energy recovery to decrease its use in favour of mechanical recycling; and the adequacy of promoting separate door step collection of all plastic combined with pay-as-you-throw schemes, or even making this measure mandatory.

Achieving Targets

The consultation also asks stakeholders about the need to establish recycling targets, and about the possibility of other alternatives.

Recycling targets may have boosted the supply of recyclable waste, and plastic waste exports to Asia have exponentially increased. In environmental terms, the Commission believes that recycling in Europe is a better option. In case of exporting to non-EU countries, exported waste should be recycled in facilities complying with standards equivalent to those applied in the EU.

The Commission is looking for feedback on the need to introduce measures to avoid substandard recycling or dumping of recyclable plastic waste exported to third countries.

Voluntary Action

The Commission is looking into whether voluntary action, by producers and retailers, would be an effective instrument for achieving better resource use in the life cycle of plastic products. This could be achieved, for example, through the setting up of sustainable packaging guidelines to which producers and retailers could commit. An early voluntary adaptation might lead to better results than change imposed by legislation.

Giving Plastic a Value

Plastic is perceived as a material with no value of its own. This encourages littering. The Commission is considering the possibility of developing deposit and return or lease systems for specific categories of plastic products. It is also looking into ways to avoid negative impacts on competition.

Empowering Consumers

Providing consumer information on the plastic content of a product, its potentially harmful additives or certain environmental performance indicators may help consumers to make informed choices. The Commission would like to know what type of information should be given in order to empower consumers.

Sustainable Plastics

Although there are few basic plastics (polymers), the multitude of additives used in plastic production can be a major obstacle for plastic recycling. Reducing hazardous substances in plastics would increase their recyclability. The Commission is looking into possible changes to the chemical design of plastics that could improve their recyclability.

An adequate flow of information from producers to recyclers is also important. Information on the chemical content of plastic delivered to converters, including additives, could play a useful role. The consultation is therefore interested in finding ways of making information on the chemical content of plastics available to all actors in the recycling chain.

New Challenges

New risks may arise from the use of innovative materials such as nanomaterials, or the use of micro-plastics in some consumer products such as scrub creams and shower gels. The Commission wants to know the best ways to address those new challenges.

Durability of Plastics

To ensure sustainability, plastic goods should be designed to maximise durability. To this end, the Commission is considering whether product design policy should tackle planned obsolescence of plastic products and aim at enhancing re-use and modular design. The Commission also wants to know if new rules on eco-design could be of use in achieving increased reusability and durability of plastic products.

There are many short-lived and single use disposable plastic products, such as plastic carrier bags. The Commissions wants to know how best to address the waste burden posed by those products.

The prices of those products do not reflect their full environmental cost, and the Commission is interested in finding out if market-based instruments should be introduced in order to more accurately reflect environmental costs from plastic production to final disposal.

Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastic products are perceived as a potential solution. However, there are barriers to achieving quick market penetration, and more technical progress is needed. The Commission would like to know what applications for biodegradable plastics deserve to be promoted. 

The term biodegradable may be misunderstood. The majority of biodegradable plastics can only biodegrade under very specific conditions in industrial composting installations. A clear distinction between home-compostable and industrially-compostable plastics may be required.

The Commission is therefore interested in finding out whether it would be appropriate to reinforce existing legal requirements by making clear distinction between naturally compostable and technically biodegradable plastics. Moreover, some biodegradability claims should be scrutinised, as residues may have unclear impacts on the environment and make recycling more difficult. The Commission is considering whether the use of oxo-degradable plastic would require any kind of intervention with a view to safeguarding the recycling processes.

In addition, decomposition in the marine environment depends on many factors, and some biodegradable plastics may not degrade in the intestines of marine species, causing injury. Also waste treatment systems are not yet capable of sufficiently separating biodegradable plastic from conventional plastic, which can jeopardise the recycling processes. Technical adaptation might increase separation costs.

Finally, the use of bio-based plastics might have a negative impact on developing countries as well as imply a loss of biodiversity, through transformation of forests into fields, and entail an increase in the consumption of water and fertilisers. The Commission wants to find out more about bio-based plastics, and whether they should be promoted.

EU Action

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC aims to achieve good environmental status for all marine waters. The majority of waste found in our seas and oceans is plastic. There are already a number of projects and initiatives aimed at better understanding the sources and impacts of marine litter, as well as possible solutions. The Commission would like to know about further actions that could be envisaged to reduce marine litter, and whether a reduction target for marine litter should be established.

International Action

There are several instruments on marine litter at international level. These include the Basel Convention on the control of trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal and the Global Partnership of Waste Management. At the Rio+20 Summit, the issue of marine litter was addressed, and world leaders committed to achieve a reduction. The Commission wants to know how the EU can promote more effectively international action.

At regional level there are also instruments like the Barcelona Convention. The Commission would like to consider whether the EU should attach a higher priority to plastic waste in the framework of its “New Neighbourhood Policy”, particularly in order to reduce plastic littering in the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea.

Next Steps

The consultation will remain open until 7 June 2013. Received contributions together with the identity of the contributor will then be published on the Internet.

The results will feed into further policy action in 2014 as part of a broader waste policy review.