Plastic has become the most common material since the beginning of the 20th century and modern life is unthinkable without it. Unfortunately, what makes it so useful, such as its durability, light weight and low cost, also makes it problematic when it comes to its end of life phase.
Dozens of millions of tonnes of plastic debris end up floating in world oceans broken into microplastic, the so-called plastic soup. Microplastics are found in the most remote parts of our oceans. Entanglement of turtles by floating plastic bags, sea mammals and birds that die from eating plastic debris and ghost fishing through derelict fishing gear produce shocking pictures. Moreover, plastic is not inert and chemical additives, some of them endocrine disruptors, can migrate into body tissue and enter the food chain.
The massive pollution of world oceans with plastic debris is therefore emerging as a global challenge that requires a global response. The European Union should be a showcase for how to build a coherent strategy to optimize plastic waste policy.
A second challenge is linked to resources conservation. Nearly 50% of plastic waste in the EU is still landfilled. Therefore, much energy and processed raw material is lost instead of being recycled into new products.
Until now there is no comprehensive policy response to such challenges. Specific aspects are addressed in various pieces of legislation, like the Waste Framework Directive with its 2015 separate plastic waste collection target or its 50% household waste collection target by 2020. The Packaging and Packaging waste Directive also has a specific plastic waste target.
Since there is an obvious and urgent need to take a focused and strategic approach towards plastic waste management as well as plastic product management, we are launching the consultation on the “Green Paper on a European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment”. This should be the start of a broad public reflection on possible responses to all public policy challenges posed by plastic waste and which are presently not specifically or not effectively addressed in European waste legislation.
The Commission’s Green Paper on plastic waste in the environment, published on 7 March 2013, has attracted great interest with over 270 replies from public authorities, NGOs, industry and other stakeholders.
Plastic waste has started to attract increased public attention, notably due to a growing number of reports about marine litter. An estimated amount of more than 100.000 t, mostly so-called micro-plastics, is floating in the world’s oceans. This is a great concern in particular since plastic and POPs concentrated on the surface of micro-plastics could enter the food chain. The potential environmental effects of this phenomenon are only beginning to be fully understood.
Despite these concerns, apart from the general provisions in the EU Waste Framework Directive, no specific EU legislation addresses plastic waste in a strategic way. In the light of the EU’s policy objective of achieving a resource efficient recycling society it is hard to accept that in Europe we still landfill nearly 50% of plastic waste. On average nearly 80% of plastic in the marine environment is estimated to be coming from land.
Stepping up plastic waste prevention, preparation for re-use, recycling and separate plastic waste collection, as well as improving plastic design and plastic product design are all essential contributors to help achieve ‘zero plastic to landfill’ and move to a circular economy. Plastic products and plastic waste are two sides of the same coin and recycling already starts in the product design phase. Designers need to be involved in the reflection on the entire life cycle of products including the waste phase. All actors designing, producing, using and disposing of plastic products and handling plastic waste will have to contribute to a less wasteful economy.
The conference brings together high-level experts from very different angles who will help to get a more complete picture on how to adjust the present resource inefficient management of plastic waste and advance towards a more circular economy. The conference will be a platform for lively debates and the sharing of insights into the best possible way forward to address plastic and plastic waste in the future.
Please note that presentations are available on the event page.