The European Union has finally woken up to the fact its citizens "are increasingly fed up with our throw-away approach to plastic", says Gerry Kiely, head of the European Commission's Dublin office
Emphasising the importance of the Commission’s plastics strategy launched last year, Kiely says citizens want to “stop plastics getting into our water, our food and even our bodies”.
The plastics industry in the EU employs 1.5 million people and turns over €340 billion annually. However, just 5 per cent of the value of plastic packaging material remains after one very short single use.
The rest goes directly to waste. “The annual bill for that 95 per cent of wasted plastic packaging amounts to up to €105 billion. That is quite clearly a wasted opportunity,” Kiely says.
The EU’s member states will need to build 250 sorting plants and 300 recycling factories by 2025 to ensure it has enough capacity within its own borders to deal with the volumes produced.
The EU plan is not short of ambition, since it is at the heart of efforts to create the much-vaunted, long-anticipated “circular economy, where synergies are created between economic and environmental goals”.
Under the strategy, all plastic packaging must be reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030. On the one side, it will cost €16.6 billion, though it’s likely to create 200,000 new jobs.
Obvious hurdles have to be overcome, Kiely says. “In the EU, uptake of recycled plastics in new products is only around 6 per cent, and often remains limited to low-value or niche uses.
"The biggest barrier is lack of access to high-quality recycled plastic materials. We don't currently have EU-wide quality standards," says the Irish Commission veteran.
Ending single-use plastic
Ending single-use plastic will be critical to tackling the litter and pollution problem, Kiely believes. New EU legislation on this is due in May. “We need to prevent plastic waste entering our habitats, be it on land or in the oceans. Single-use plastic items constitute 50 per cent of the litter found on our beaches globally.”
The Commission is looking at establishing a regulatory framework for biodegradable and compostable plastics. “Our consumers must know, for example, that if they mix biodegradable plastics with oil-based plastics, recycling will be impossible due to cross-contamination. We have to get the biodegradability issue right.”
Action on microplastics is also on the agenda. “Once littered, unrecycled plastic remains in the environment for centuries. Small pieces of it, what we usually refer to as microplastics, pollute our soil and waters, enter the food chain and float in the air we breathe.”
An EU move restricting microbeads intentionally added to products such as cosmetics or detergents is imminent. Innovation will play a part too. By 2020, €350 million will have been invested in plastics-related innovation under the Horizon 2020 programme.
The other critical element required is “harnessing global action”, Kiely underlines. “About half of the plastic waste collected in the EU is sent abroad; marine litter from one country ends up on the beaches of other countries; and ultimately, fragments of plastic from all over the globe accumulate over time in the oceans and seas, carried from one place to another by marine currents.”
China's decision to close its doors to the world's plastic waste may be causing chaos in the recyclables market but it has forced producers, businesses, and governments to seek more sustainable solutions. The extent to which people are worried about the impact of plastic on the environment and on their health has played its part. Scientific evidence, David Attenborough and China, in an unintended way, have done the world a big favour.
10 most common plastic objects found on European beaches
Crisp packets / sweet wrappers
Cutlery, straws and stirrers
Balloons and balloon sticks
Cups and lids
Source: based on JRC report