The ambitious proposal aims to ensure all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Background

Amid increasing scrutiny of plastic waste, the European Commission (the Commission) has released a for plastics in a circular economy (the Strategy). The Strategy builds upon the European Union’s (the EU’s) prior measures to reduce plastic waste, such as the Plastic Bags Directive, which has significantly reduced plastic bag use throughout several Member States. However, in order to support the Commission’s “vision for Europe’s new plastics economy,” the Strategy sets a number of more far-reaching and ambitious goals.

The Strategy includes a number of specific targets to be reached by 2030, such as:

  • Ensuring all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner
  • Recycling more than 50% of the plastics waste that Europe generates (a more than 20% increase compared to current recycling rates)
  • Increasing fourfold the recycling and sorting industries, which will enable the creation of 200,000 new jobs

The utility of plastics is widely recognised in most societies and economies. For instance, the use of plastics in the creation of high-performance insulation materials helps reduce energy bills; and in packaging, plastics help to ensure food safety. In the EU alone, the plastics sector employs 1.5 million people and, in 2015, generated a turnover of €340 billion, according to the Commission.

Over recent decades, however, the production, use, and disposal of plastics have been under increasing scrutiny. In particular, the sheer volume of global plastic production (which has increased twentyfold since the 1960s), as well as the amount of annual plastic waste generated in Europe (approximately 25.8 million tonnes, less than 30% of which is recycled), raise important concerns.

New EU Measures

The Commission has proposed four overarching EU measures in the annex to the Strategy. The new measures are:

  1. “Improving the economics and quality of plastics recycling”: This measure aims to improve product design by preparing for the future revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, In addition, the measure aims to boost recycled content by evaluating and reviewing the Construction Products Regulation and End-of-life Vehicles Directive.
  2. “Curbing plastic waste and littering”: As part of this measure, the Commission intends to reduce single-use plastics by launching a public consultation to determine the scope of a legislative initiative on single-use plastics. Further, amongst other actions, the Commission will consider ways to monitor and curb marine litter more effectively. These efforts will include supporting Member States on the implementation of their programmes of measures on marine litter under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.
  3. “Driving investment and innovation towards circular solutions”: In the Strategy, the Commission states its intention to take a number of actions to support investments in circular solutions research. (For background on this topic, please see Latham’s prior coverage.) These steps include examining the feasibility of a private-led investment fund to finance investments, as well as direct financial support for infrastructure and innovation through the European Fund for Strategic Investment and other EU funding instruments (e.g. Horizon 2020).
  4. “Harnessing global action”: In addition to the EU, the Commission will also seek to take actions to reduce plastic waste and marine litter in “key regions”, including East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean.

Notably, the Strategy does not mention the rumoured “plastics tax”. The Commission only said that it intends to carry out an impact assessment on various ways to tax the use of single-use plastics without providing any additional details on potential models.

Next Steps

Whenever the Commission delineates a new action area, it provides broad pledges that either connect with or supplement concrete legislative proposals. In this instance, the Commission has pledged to invest €350 million in plastics production research. As a next step, the Commission will present its legislative proposals. These proposals will then potentially be adopted and implemented. If executed, the Strategy is poised to significantly help improve the sustainability of all aspects of plastics production, use, and disposal — both in Europe, and in other key markets.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Tegan Creedy in the London Office of Latham & Watkins.