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Plastic: let’s keep the Fantastic and get rid of the Drastic

Conference on “The role of plastic waste in a circular economy”

Brussels, 30 September 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I don’t know if any of you ever saw the film “Recipes for Disaster”. It shows a family trying to live for a year without petrol-based products. I don’t think I’m giving away the plot by telling you that they find it virtually impossible. it particularly shows just how much we have come to depend on “fantastic plastic”. To the extent that we have used as much plastic in the last 10 years as we did in the last century, and in Europe consumption is still increasing at 5 % every year.

Plastic has so many great qualities; it is versatile, durable, cheap and light. But of course some of those qualities make it “drastic plastic” for our environment and for marine life. It is often more durable than the products we make with it, and its low cost means we are using more and more short lived and disposable products.

So it is time to look carefully at how we use plastic, and particularly what we do to in it when we’ve finished using it. And that is exactly what we are doing.

7 months ago I launched – with the help of Jeremy Irons – the Green Paper on Plastic Waste. The response to our call for opinions just shows how important this issue is. We received more than 270 responses, including from 14 Ministries of Environment and from some national Parliaments. The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions have already adopted opinions on the Green Paper, and the European Parliament’s opinion is expected very soon.

Of course it takes a long time to analyse all these responses and structure the results on such a complex issue, but the evaluation process is moving on and I can already today give you a preview of stakeholders’ views.

Before I go into detail, let me briefly explain how the Green Paper on Plastic Waste fits into the wider picture. Into our efforts to make the use of resources more efficient, to develop a circular economy, and to combat marine pollution.

The Resource Efficiency Roadmap set out clear milestones towards a resource efficient Europe. We must move towards a circular economy:

1. In which waste is used as a secondary material and pumped back into the economy;

2. In which we optimise waste management according to the Waste hierarchy, with the highest possible rates of waste prevention, reuse and recycling;

3. In which energy recovery is limited to non-recyclable waste, and landfilling to residual waste;

4. In which products are designed in such a way that they can be reused and easily recycled from cradle to cradle.

These objectives were confirmed by the European Parliament and Member States in the 7th Environment Action Programme.

If we look at plastic production processes and plastic waste management today, we are a very long way from these objectives. Even in the best performing Member States, recycling rates for plastic are fairly low. In 2012 only around 24 % of plastics were collected for recycling1 in the EU. Around 50 % of plastics still go to landfill and the rest is incinerated. This has to change!

So plastic waste exemplifies the challenges we have in creating a circular economy. The Green Paper deals specifically with plastic waste as a single horizontal waste stream, but as part of the resource efficiency and resource conservation story. The central issues around which the paper asks 26 specific questions are: “how can we do more with less” and “how can we address resource depletion effectively”.

There are 4 fundamental points made in the Green Paper:

1. First, product design must focuses on durability, cradle to cradle recycling and reparability. Toxic material such as endocrine disruptors and heavy metals should not be found in any plastic.

2. Secondly, the real costs of plastic production should be internalised, with full responsibility for collection of used plastic goods for recycling, and appropriate consumer information about any relevant environmental aspect of plastics.

3. Thirdly, plastic must be used more sustainably and we should not produce so many items that are thrown away immediately after purchase.

4. And finally, we must set out to achieve a 100 % collection rate for plastic and establish the conditions for recycling to be a profitable business. Diverting all plastics from landfills is already an important element.

So what were the main results from the Green Paper consultation process?

First who did we hear from?

1. The largest group of respondents were associations, 60 % from industry and 19 % NGOs. The second largest group were governments and public administrations, including 14  Ministries of Environment.

2. Most reactions came from countries with higher plastic recycling rates and better performance in waste management; we also received replies from non-European countries, USA, Turkey and the Philippines.

And what is the overall message that came across?

4. Most respondents argued that the EU should stop funding landfilling and incineration and should start using public money to upgrade recycling infrastructures in Europe.

And if we look at the answers to the specific questions we can see some clear messages:

1. Nearly half of all respondents call for improvements to waste sorting and collection in all Member States, preferably through separate door step collection combined with “pay as you throw” schemes.

2. While many respondents support voluntary action, a large majority call for better implementation and improved legislation, including a landfill ban for plastic. They also want stricter and additional recycling targets and stricter export controls, to ensure that European waste is not dumped or recycled in substandard facilities in third countries.

3. As regards consumer behaviour, the consultation highlights the need to improve information to consumers – in particular on recyclability of plastic. This is seen as very important by more than 160 respondents. Also, a majority favours the development of “deposit and return” systems or lease systems.

4. There is also strong support for promoting mono-materials and improved plastic design in order to increase recyclability.

5. Regarding the chemical content of plastics, many respondents believe that restrictions in the use of additives are needed and that more information should be made available – for example, through safety data sheets or through the development of public database on plastic chemical content. Moreover, current legislation is felt to not sufficiently address the risks arising from the use of micro-plastics in products.

6. The durability of plastic products has emerged as one of the biggest concerns in the public consultation. A majority of stakeholders believe that:

· “Planned obsolescence” should be tackled;

· that New rules on eco-design should be a key element for improving recyclability; and

· that Market based instruments should be introduced to address the waste burden posed by short-lived and single use plastic products.

1. On biodegradable plastics and bio-based plastics, the answers were most split. A majority of respondents think that biodegradable plastic as well as bio-based plastic, should not be promoted generally, but rather on a case‑by‑case basis and under properly defined conditions. It was also stressed that a clear legal distinction will be needed between naturally compostable and technically biodegradable plastics.

2. The consultation shows that there is increasing public concern over marine litter and plastic waste. Most respondents believe that awareness-raising is important to reduce marine litter and they see coastal clean-up days as a necessary response that could be coordinated at EU level. There is also broad support for the establishment of an EU wide quantitative reduction target for marine litter.

3. Finally, the international dimension has been highlighted by many stakeholders. In their view, the EU should promote international action on plastic waste and support best practice worldwide, including on marine litter prevention.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This consultation shows that – in the EU – we have started to move in the right direction. There is a very high level of convergence between the answers we received and the more general policy objectives we are already pursuing on European waste policy.

Concrete preparatory work on diverting plastics from landfill and on increasing plastic recycling targets is already going on in the upcoming review of waste targets. Other issues will be addressed as part of the regulatory fitness check of our waste stream directives, particularly the packaging waste directives. We should also adopt very soon a specific legislative proposal concerning lightweight plastic bags.

Targets are still a useful driver for investment in better waste management, but the real driver leading us towards a circular economy is the economic rationale for treating our waste as a resource. Just implementing existing waste legislation properly would create 400,000 jobs in the EU. The benefits in terms of materials savings and reduction of greenhouse emissions are also significant.

But the potential of moving towards a truly circular economy – where materials are used again and again instead of going on a one-way trip – is huge. I believe that with the Green Paper on plastic waste in the environment this debate has gained momentum and that it will help us to move another step closer to a circular economy.

Thank you for your contributions to the public consultation and I wish you an interesting conference. I hope that you can help us to keep the “fantastic”, and get rid of the “drastic” in plastic.

Janez Potocnik

EU Commissioner for the Environment

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