What are the most effective steps the EU can take to treat its plastic waste within the bloc?


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Joan Marc Simon
Joan Marc Simon

Executive Director at Zero Waste Europe

Picture of Pierre Condamine
Pierre Condamine

Waste Policy Officer at Zero Waste Europe

Picture of Justine Maillot
Justine Maillot

Consumption & Production Campaigner at Zero Waste Europe and Policy Coordinator of Rethink Plastic Alliance

Investigations, showing how European plastic waste shipped outside the EU to be ‘recycled’ has ended up in a dumpsite on the other side of the world, have made headlines over the last couple of years. This has revealed how the products and packaging we consume in Europe, and the waste it generates, impacts communities and the environment in other regions such as South-East Asia.

With China’s decision to strongly restrict the import of most plastic waste in 2018, followed by a full ban in 2021, and the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments requiring Prior Informed Consent of waste receiving countries, the EU has been left with no choice but to face its own responsibilities.

How can the EU manage its plastic waste within its territory and in line with the EU Circular Economy Agenda? In short, the EU needs to focus first on reducing the quantity of plastic it uses and wastes.

The EU generates more than 25mn tonnes of plastic waste per year

For too long, addressing the plastic crisis has only been done through an end-of-life perspective by trying to find technical solutions to properly treat plastic once it becomes waste. This has failed and unless we change our mindset, it will continue to fail for two main reasons. Firstly, by only focusing on plastic waste treatment, all the adverse impacts linked to extraction, production and use – including greenhouse gas emissions, toxic emissions and microplastics losses, among others – are eluded. Secondly, technical, end-of-life solutions cannot make up for ever-increasing plastic production and consumption. Today, material extraction progresses two to three times faster than recycling.

The EU generates more than 25mn tonnes of plastic waste per year, of which only 30% is recycled (including what is shipped for recycling outside the EU). The EU aims to increase the sorting and recycling capacity in Europe fourfold, creating jobs in the process. Increasing the infrastructure for separate collection and subsequent mechanical recycling is very much needed. Yet, it will not be enough; even improved and well-performing recycling infrastructures would not keep up with the pace of plastic production. Therefore, the EU first needs to focus on reducing the plastic waste it produces, starting with single-use plastics. Legislative action to move away from disposable plastics and disposable products altogether, as well as to address overpackaging, should be furthered.

Secondly, the EU should adopt strong measures that drive the redesign of products. The large majority of plastic products and packaging are currently not designed to be recyclable, with even less made to be recycled within existing infrastructures. Even fewer are designed to be reusable. Hence, the EU should make sure that only products that are sustainable by design can access the EU market, such as products that are durable, reusable (as much as relevant), free from hazardous substances or recyclable at the end of life. As circular products and circular systems are two sides of the same coin to achieve the circular economy, the EU must implement the appropriate systems and infrastructures to allow durable and reusable products to become the norm. This includes deposit return schemes (mainly for reuse but also recycling), pooling systems and financial incentives for reusable products.

The plastic crisis isn’t solely a matter of waste treatment and technical solutions

Thirdly, when plastic waste cannot be avoided (even durable and reusable products reach end of life at one point), the right system and infrastructure should be in place to properly process and recover as much material as possible. This should happen through the combination of both the right legal framework implemented at the European, national or regional level – mandatory separate collection schemes, efficient Extended Producers Responsibility schemes and recycling targets, for example – and the adoption of ambitious local strategy promoting the upper part of the waste hierarchy via different incentives, such as the Pay-As-You-Throw system.

Finally, even when the right incentives for the right solutions are put in place, it is also extremely important to limit the access to damaging options, such as waste incineration and shipments to third countries, through financial measures or legal restrictions to drive attention and change upstream.

In other words, the plastic crisis isn’t solely a matter of waste treatment and technical solutions. It is a complex matter weaving economic, social and environmental issues along the entire supply chain. For such a matter, we need holistic solutions whose first aim should be to rethink and reshape our production and consumption patterns.

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