Leiden Law Blog

Recycling as panacea for plastic pollution: the EU Plastics Strategy

Recycling as panacea for plastic pollution: the EU Plastics Strategy

This month, on 16 January 2018, the European Commission published its Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. The Strategy had been long awaited and is increasingly urgent, since research has presented increasing evidence of  the escalating plastic pollution of the environment. Organisations working on plastics, such as the Plastic Soup Foundation and Seas at Risk, have been waiting for years for EU measures to combat plastic pollution. The Leiden Advocacy Project on Plastic has been working with several organisations on legislative options.

In the meantime, the awareness of plastic soup and severe plastic pollution on beaches and rivers has been rising. During the World Economic Forum in 2017, it was announce that by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish. The recent BBC documentary Blue Planet II with an episode on the impact of human activities in the oceans includes striking images of plastic pollution and its consequences on the marine environment. These images have already led to a proposal for an action plan on plastic pollution in the UK.

But now we have the EU Plastics Strategy. It identifies two major ‘challenges’ for the environment: the consequences of production of plastic and of plastic pollution. Production of plastic creates environmental harm because of the use of natural resources, in particular oil, and discharge of CO2, while plastic waste may result in the pollution of land, water and the oceans. This may lead to the disturbance of ecosystems and entrance into the food chain. The Commission has come up with a strategic vision to tackle both production and pollution through the new buzz term: the circular plastics economy. The solution for both ‘challenges’ is recycling. According to the Commission the recycling of plastics would lead to a sustainable plastics economy with a key role for ‘a smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry.’

So what can we expect from the EU in the coming years?

The key to the strategy is improving the economics and quality of plastic recycling, through improved design and recollection. Taking this view, the EU is leaning heavily on the report of the World Economic Forum. Both documents presume that we cannot do without plastics and that the use of plastics will continue to grow. Approximately 25% of worldwide plastic is used for packaging, of which only 5% is effectively recycled and 32% ends up as litter in the environment.

The EU Plastics Strategy points out that 50% of the litter found on EU beaches consists of single-use plastics, and that this problem is expected to grow. To ‘curb’ this littering, the EU refers to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Plastic Bags Directive it already adopted in 2008 and 2015 respectively. Furthermore, the Commission points to the Drinking Water Directive to promote access to tap water, which will lead to reducing packaging needs for bottled water as a side effect. Additional measures are to be developed, hopefully very soon, as according to the annex the work on single-use plastics is still in the analytical phase in order ‘to determine the scope of a legislative initiative on single-use plastics’. 

The annex to the communication entails a list of measures that deal with recycling, waste management, investment and innovation and international actions. Some of these measures include legislative action, for example a revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to harmonise rules for plastic packaging so that it can be recycled and reused. Others are directed at monitoring, examining and promoting activities, such as ‘monitoring and mapping of marine litter’ and ‘examining of policy options’. New action has only been taken on a few issues, for example regarding the restriction of oxo plastics. But, unfortunately, the strategy does not set clear targets. The 2015 EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy was even more ambitious, at least including targets of municipal waste recycling of 65% in 2025 and 75% in 2030.

Therefore, the EU Plastics Strategy is somewhat disappointing. On some points, the strategy looks more like an investment and innovation plan for economic growth and the stimulation of jobs in the European plastics industry, while, in the end, the industry is a major contributor to plastic pollution. What really struck me is that the word ‘reduce’ is only used 12 times in relation to plastic waste, while the term ‘recycle’ appears 148 times in the document. In my view, the problem of plastic waste deserves solid and swift action, and much can be gained by reducing unnecessary plastic packaging and products. Also, the determination of plastic as a potential harmful substance to health and the environment should be acknowledged, by including plastics under the EU regulation on chemical substances, the REACH Regulation. Hopefully, EU Member States will take the lead in restricting plastic as a packaging material and as an ingredient in products, such as shampoo, as has now been done by France. And we at the Leiden Advocacy Project on Plastic will continue to study legal solutions for plastic pollution.

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