Bringing plastic waste back into the economy


The European Union must increasingly move towards a circular economy where products are reused and recovered, not thrown away, when they come to the end of their natural lives. That message came through loud and clear as leading experts examined how to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste at a recent conference on Plastic and Plastic Waste in a circular economy in Brussels.

Plastic, because of its versatility and unique properties, is widely used in a whole variety of items common to our daily lives, from packaging and household appliances to furniture and motor vehicles. It is also notoriously difficult to dispose of, and as plastic production increases, so too does plastic waste.

As part of an effort to tackle the problem, the Commission published a green paper on A European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment in early 2013. This acknowledged the important contribution plastic makes, while highlighting the waste management challenges it brings. These are particularly prevalent in the marine environment: 80% of plastic in our waters originates not from ships but from the land, with an impact on our health and the environment we are only just beginning to understand.

This led to a wide-ranging public consultation with almost 300 contributions from public authorities, NGOs, industry and other stakeholders. The conference, held on 30 September, took the examination of the problem a stage further and helped prepare input for the wider waste review which the Commission will conduct in 2014.

" With raw materials and natural resources under increasing threat, wasting 76 % of all plastic used is a luxury Europe can no longer afford "

Circular economy crucial

Recent years have seen a significant increase in the volumes of plastic collected for recycling in the Union. But the overall level is still only 24%. With raw materials and natural resources under increasing threat, wasting 76% of all plastic used is a luxury Europe can no longer afford.

The conference found widespread agreement among experts about the imperative to move away from today’s linear system, where products are made, used and discarded, to a circular business model where items are given a new purpose. This would increasingly require manufacturers to retain ownership of their products by factoring in recovery and reuse at the design stage.

There was also strong support among participants for a ban on placing plastic waste in landfill sites. Although the EU aims to virtually eliminate landfilling by 2020, the sites are still the depository for half of all plastic waste.

Extensive backing was given to a significant increase in plastic recycling targets. An analysis by Plastic Recyclers Europe demonstrates that a target of 62% is achievable by 2020 and economically viable. This would divert more than 24 million tonnes from landfill, place 11 million tonnes of plastics recyclates on the market, save over EUR 4.5 billion by substituting for virgin plastics and create some 360 000 jobs.