Global plastics production has grown exponentially since the 1960s, reaching 311 million tonnes produced in 2014, a twentyfold increase. It is expected to reach up to 1.2 1 billion tonnes annually by 2050. The European plastic industry plays a vital role in the EU economy, with 1.45 million employees and a turnover of 350 billion (including converters and machine building producers). While EU plastics production has stabilised over recent years, its share on the global market is decreasing. In Europe over 40% of plastics are used in packaging, 20% is used in construction and less than 10% by the automotive industry. Other common applications include furniture, household appliances, electric and electronic goods and agricultural uses. While plastics materials are a driver of our economy, a number of environmental issues related to their production, use and end-of-life need to be tackled. Externalities are not systematically factored into the prices either of the materials itself or the final product. Packaging applications are particularly relevant; their functionally has to weigh in with their considerable littering potential. Consumer behaviour also comes into play.
The transition to a more circular economy, where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste minimised, is an essential contribution to the EU’s efforts to develop a sustainable, low carbon, resources efficient and competitive economy. Plastics is one of the five priority areas addressed in the “EU action plan for the Circular Economy”2. The latter sets out a clear commitment to preparing a strategy “…that addressed the challenges posed by plastics throughout the value chain and taking into account their entire life-cycle, such as reuse, recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances of concerns in certain plastics and marine litter”.3 The implementation of the existing acquis, notably on separate collection of plastic waste is a key prerequisite. The plastics strategy intends to support and complement these measures by providing a systemic perspective and creating synergies with other actions, such as on prevention, eco-design, work on the interface between waste, chemicals and products policies, measures to boost markets for secondary raw materials, use of economics instruments.
It has been estimated that globally, in 2013, 5 to 13 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the environment, in particular in the oceans4. Plastic packaging is estimated to represent the highest share, as its weight, size and low-value make it prone to uncontrolled disposal. As regards marine litter, while land-based sources are predominant, sea-based sources such as shipping or fishing are not negligible. This problem is global, as the bulk of plastic leakage takes place outside of the EU ( in particular in fast-growing Asian economies) and collective efforts are needed. New sources of plastic leakage, e.g. single-use plastic products and microplastics, are on the rise, posing new potential threats to animal and human health. Microplastics - used intentionally in products or generated during the products’ life cycle, e.g. through car tyre wear or from washing clothes – are of particular concern as their small size (less than 5 mm) increases their potential toxicity.
Therefore, the level of marine pollution with plastic litter and microplastics are alarming. Microplastics are entering the food chain worth yet unknown consequences. The 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan referred to an aspirational 30% reduction target for litter items found on beaches and for fishing gear found at sea. Biodegradable plastics could be a positive development in specific circumstances, but could exacerbate consumer negligence, the exiting leakage problem, the release of microplastics in solis and water and the risk of cross-contamination of conventional plastic waste streams. Work on definitions and standards is needed (biodegradable, compostable, home-compostable). Oxo-degradable plastic fragments over time into small particles which remain in the environment and may increase pollution. Directive 2015/7205 on plastic bags requires to the Commission top present a report examining the impact of the use of oxo-degradable plastic carrier bags on the environment.
The EU Legal Basis to act is based on articles 114 and 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).
The main problem addressed by this initiative cannot be addressed through exclusive action at the level of the Member States because of their trans-boundary nature (e.g. marine plastics pollution) and of potential ramifications for the internal market. In the absence of a strategic European dimension, uncoordinated or unilateral actions by Member States would risk increasing market fragmentation. While actions at national and local level can help address some of the problems’ drovers (e.g. ensuring good implementation of the waste management rules or using economic instruments to encourage more sustainable practice), a number of key obstacles to, e.g. higher plastic reuse and recycling, can potentially be removed at lower societal costs through EU actions ( e.g. creating the right framework for economies of scale in material and product design, recycling, improving cooperation and informatics flows across a transnational value-chain, avoiding market fragmentation and ensuring a level playing field for economic operators).
Pursuing the objectives included in the Circular Economy Action Plan6, these should directly contribute to its implementation, but also to the EU’s jobs and growth agenda and the Energy Union’s vision for a low carbon, energy efficient economy. The strategy and pursuance of its objectives will also contribute to the implementation of actions under the UN Agenda 2030, more specifically towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Indeed, the Strategy should seek to improve framework conditions for investments and innovations that enable the plastic and related industries and the entire value chain using plastics to become more circular, resource efficient and reduce its carbon footprint, in line with the climate and energy goals of the EU. It will require innovation of the whole plastics system, built on a shared vision and enhanced cooperation between all stakeholders.