The European Commission recently adopted a green paper on plastic waste. The paper aims to launch a broad reflection on a possible response to the public policy challenge posed by plastic waste via a public consultation. This will run until the beginning of June 2013, and the green paper confirms that no action will be proposed before 2014, when EU waste legislation is due to be revised. The consultation will be of interest to producers of products containing or made from plastics, as well as to retailers and the waste industry.

The Commission estimates that around 25m tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2008, and that this figure will increase by 5.7m tonnes by 2015. However, there is no EU legislation that specifically addresses plastic waste (although both the Packaging Waste Directive and Waste Framework Directive are relevant). The Commission has therefore launched a consultation to gather the views of all interested stakeholders on policy options to reduce plastic waste.

The proposals put forward by the Commission include:

  • waste recycling: the Commission believes that recycling of plastic waste is a better option than energy recovery or landfill. One proposal therefore is to phase out or ban the landfill of plastic waste through an amendment to the Landfill Directive (directive 1999/31/EC). To avoid this leading to more waste energy recovery, the Commission also proposes that measures on separate collection, sorting and material recovery be adopted;
  • recycling targets: currently the Packaging Waste Directive is the only EU legal instrument establishing a specific recycling target for plastic waste, which is limited to plastic packaging waste. The Commission is considering setting further specific plastic waste recycling targets;
  • voluntary action: the Commission believes that voluntary action by producers and retailers could significantly ease the problem of plastic waste in the environment. This could be achieved, for example, by setting up sustainable packaging guidelines to which producers and retailers would commit;
  • giving plastic a value: the Commission wants to change consumers’ perceptions of plastic as a material with little or no value. To do so it suggests implementing deposit and return schemes for PET beverage bottles, similar to those in Sweden and Demark, or lease systems under which the producer remains the owner of the plastic product;
  • sustainable plastics: although there are a few basic plastics, the multitude of additives used in plastic production can be a major obstacle for plastic recycling. The Commission is therefore looking into possible changes to the chemical design of plastics that could improve their recyclability. The Commission is also considering ways to make information on the chemical content of plastics available to all actors in the recycling chain;
  • product design: plastic products are often not designed to make their re-use and repair possible. To address this the Commission is considering developing eco-design rules, setting particular criteria on reusability, durability, reparability and modular construction; and
  • plastic carrier bags and other single-use plastic products: following a public consultation on plastic carrier bags held in summer 2011, the Commission is already assessing options to reduce single-use plastic carrier bags. One such option is a ban on plastic bags. This has already been contested by manufacturers, which argue that packaging that satisfies the legal requirements, for example in respect of reusability and recyclability, cannot be prohibited. In the green paper the Commission focuses on the difference between the low prices of single-use plastic products and their full environmental cost. The Commission is seeking views on whether market-based instruments should be introduced to more accurately reflect the environmental costs from plastic production to final disposal.