Strategy to reduce plastic waste


Plastic is one of the most common materials in our daily lives. It is used for a wide range of purposes because it is cheap, versatile, light and durable. However, those very characteristics make it extremely hard to dispose of. The European Commission is now developing a strategy for coping with plastic waste and has asked for input from experts and nonexperts alike.

The problem of plastic waste has been graphically highlighted in the film Trashed. This stars the British actor Jeremy Irons who was present at the launch of the Green Paper by Commissioner Potocnik to lend his support.

Global plastic production has soared in recent years. In 1950, it was 1.5 million tonnes. Some 60 years later, it had climbed to 245 million tonnes, rising in line with gross domestic product. As production increases, so too does plastic waste unless initiatives such as improved product design and waste management measures can reverse the trend.

Currently, half of all plastic waste in the EU is buried in landfill sites, although the EU aims to phase these out by 2020. Landfilling plastic can trigger future problems, as the material may contain hazardous components that could lead to dangerous emissions and polluting residues. Only some 21% of plastic waste is currently recycled.

Plastic waste is a particular blight in the marine environment, accounting for 80% of all the litter found in the world’s oceans and seas. It is a serious threat to marine biodiversity and a vehicle for endocrine disruptors to enter the food chain, potentially endangering human health.

Green Paper

To tackle the root of the problem, the Commission has presented a green paper on A European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment. This acknowledges the important role that plastic plays in our society and industrial processes, while explaining the waste management challenges its increasing use brings.

It points to the economic gains that could be made from higher plastic recycling rates. The present low levels, allied to the practice of exporting waste for reprocessing outside the European Union, are an important loss of non-renewable resources and jobs. If recycling rates can reach 70% by 2020, an extra 162 000 jobs could be created in the EU.

Strengthening recycling targets and promoting separate collection of plastic waste, which will be compulsory from 2015, are ways of achieving that increase. Attention is also being given to using green public procurement to increase demand for products made from recycled plastic.

Containing 26 specific questions, the Green Paper triggered a public consultation which ran until the beginning of June. The comments are feeding into further policy action next year as part of a broader waste policy review.