The place for plastics in a zero-emission economy

Most recent studies show that extraction and processing of natural resources is responsible for the half of the total emission of greenhouse gases and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water scarcity at the global level. Unfortunately, for now it looks like the situation is going to further worsen. [fot. Unsplash]

Recycling of plastic packaging must improve in the EU. Still, the real problem is not plastics themselves, but their appropriate use and waste management. This is the conclusion from the discussion at the webinar organized by EURACTIV Poland titled “A New Paradigm for Plastics and Their Role in the EU’s Zero-Emission Economy Plans”.

The video recording of the debate is available here

Most recent studies show that the extraction and processing of natural resources are responsible for half of the total emission of greenhouse gases and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water scarcity at the global level. Unfortunately, for now, it looks like the situation is going to further worsen. In the next 40 years, the use of natural resources will double, while the global amount of waste is going to increase by 70%.

Moreover, plastics currently account for 80-85% of the waste in the marine environment of the European Union, and single-use items made from plastics make up half of it.

Plastics are least-recycled

In Poland alone, the current demand for plastics amounts to 3.5 million tonnes per year. Across the EU, people produce 25 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly. Less than 30% is recycled. For comparison, 31% of plastic waste is landfilled and 39% is incinerated.

The leader of recycling plastic packaging is Lithuania, where according to Eurostat 74% are recycled. Next are Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Slovenia. The worst are the statistics in Estonia, Finland, and France, where only 27% of plastic packages are recycled.

The situation will not change as long as we do not change our way of consuming and processing waste, especially plastic waste. What is optimistic, in many places in the world and also in the EU the discussion has started on what measures should be taken to prevent a black scenario and how the question of plastics influences the environment and climate in a wide sense.

The EU has its first binding goals on recycling

The EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius stressed during the debate that “the best currently accessible way of dealing with plastics is recycling”.

“It has a lot of assets, for example, it makes us less dependent on imported natural resources, which in turn increases our resilience for crises. The pandemic has reminded us how important it is,” he said.

In 2019 the EU adopted a directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, which did not only defined the term for such product but also imposed on the Member States the obligements related to the plastics, like adopting laws (e.g. introducing additional fees) enforcing the limitation on the use of disposable plastic cups or plastic packages.

Disposable plastics will disappear soon

What is more, until 2025 PET bottles produced in the EU will have to consist of no less than 25% from recycled plastics. Until 2030 it is going to be 30%.

“The market has already reacted to that, and the prices of drinks in such bottles have increased. But bottles are only the beginning. We will propose other obligements concerning the recycling of plastic packaging, as well as recycling plastics in automotive and construction industries,” said the EU commissioner.

In 2018 the European Commission has set a goal to make half of plastic packaging recyclable, and until 2030 – even 55%. The 2019 directive, apart from the goals mentioned above, imposes an obligation for proper labeling of disposable plastic products, waste separation, and the appropriate education of consumers.

The Member States are also to create, on the basis of EU’s guidelines, legal regulations concerning the bigger responsibility of producers, not only those of plastic cups or packages but also of plastic bacs, tobacco, and hygiene products.

A substantial change is also the obligement to withdraw from the market until July 3, 2021, a part of disposable plastic products, including cutlery, plates, cotton buds, or sticks for balloons, but also cups and packages made of expanded polystyrene (EPS).

The problem is not the plastics themselves, but their proper use

The participants of the debate stressed that the problem does not concern plastics as such. “I think it is simply a material of specific properties, which differ it from other materials. We decide whether we use them in a good or bad way. Therefore we should rather talk about how we use plastics”, said director of Zero Waste Europe Joan Marc Simon.

He pointed out that the use of plastic may actually have a positive influence on the natural environment, as plastic products or packages are light, which allows transporting more of them at once and in such a way contribute less to air pollution.

“But of course plastics mean also great challenges. One example is chemical additives used in its production that have a serious influence on our health. Today we do not understand this influence well enough. As yet, we know that it is there. We have to continue the research on the properties of plastics,” he said.

The expert also stressed the need to use reusable plastic products and prolonging the plastics’ life by recycling them. “Unfortunately, today the majority of plastics is not collected and recycled. Consequently, it permeates to the natural environment, and then to our bodies. And I think we all agree that this is not where the plastics should end up”, said Simon.

He underlined that the plastic waste collection system based on the producers’ requirements and the actions of municipal services has its restrictions, as in this system it is only possible to collect about 30% of waste and recycle even less.

“The goal of selective collection of 90% plastic waste set by the European Commission is a step in a good direction. But we will have to improve the overall waste collection system and to do this we must engage the citizens. Research shows that people will be more eager to take packages of all sorts to the appropriate places if they are provided with necessary conditions for that – the appropriate number of collection centers and some economic incentives”, Simon said.

Producers see the problem

Managing Director of Plastics Europe Virginia Janssens pointed to the need to raise awareness on the scale of the challenges related to de-carbonization, plastics circulation, and waste management.

She assured that the plastics sector is “rightly proud of its comprehensiveness and social utility of products, but it is also engaged in a pro-environmental activity and it contributes significantly to the solution of the problem of waste”.

“We are pleased to see progress on waste collection. We want to implement long-term, sustainable solutions. Innovations are in our DNA. We observe the implementation of more technologies that facilitate recycling. I have in mind, for instance, chemical recycling that the industry more and more invest in. But there are also new infrastructure projects, changes in business models, or new projecting methods”, said Janssens.

However, she added, we need some more time for these innovative changes to fully enter the production cycle. “We are also a part of the value chain, so we closely cooperate with all its participants and decision-makers. We do everything we can for plastics to become more circular so that we can implement in Europe the consecutive elements of circular economy”, she assured.

She also reminded that Plastics Europe is a leading member of the Circular Plastics Alliance initiative, a high-level platform set up by the European Commission, which creates an alliance of key stakeholders from the sector embracing the whole value chain of plastics, from waste collectors to recyclers and from primary producers to processors, brand owners and retailers, having in mind both the packaging sector and automotive and construction sectors.

Changes are needed in Ecodesign

Also, the European Parliament is engaged in the improvement of plastic waste management. In its February report concerning the European Commission’s new action plan towards a circular economy, it proposes a lot of ambitious measures, such as binding aims on the reduction of the use of primary resources, limitation on food waste, or expanding the consumers’ right to repair products.

Adam Jarubas from Polish People’s Party (EPP), MEP, and member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) reminds that among the specific recommendations from the EP are also changes in the Ecodesign Directive, as well as setting the goals of material waste reduction.

“There are also references to the particular types of waste, also package waste and other plastic waste. We do not know how many of these proposals will actually be introduced, but I think we are on a good way to changes in the Ecodesign Directive. In my view, two questions are of particular importance. Firstly, the maintainability of products. Their disposableness is a huge problem and it is necessary to regulate this issue. Secondly, the problem is an artificial shortening of the products’ lives. It will probably be much more difficult to reduce the use of primary resources”, the MEP said.

Yet, he stressed that the modernization of the economy may result in the rising need for some materials. One example is copper, which will be needed for the construction of electric car engines. “Fortunately, in the case of copper the level of recycled material is high”, he added.

“I suggested that the EP could start a pilot project granting money for the foundation of a market observatory for key secondary materials that were mentioned in the EC’s Circular Economy Action Plan. It is an important instrument that may allow gathering data necessary to balance the recycling and verification if they are not landfilled illegally, and the need for primary resources. The EC has decided last year that the project will be implemented in another way”, concluded Jarubas.

The industry needs clear guidelines

When talking about the directive on disposable plastic products Poland accepts all the intended results for the society, as well as the consequences of the implementation of a circular economy, such as plastic waste reduction, assured Deputy Director of the Department of Innovation and Industrial Policy in the Ministry of Economic Development, Labour and Technology Marlena Tryka.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, we accept those aims and promote them. It is in our common interest to maximally reduce the use of plastics and introduce greater circulation. All these goals are absolutely desired”, said the ministry’s representative.

Still, she pointed to some concerns by the Polish industry. “As we all know, the industry has been recently hit hard with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Investments in innovations have obviously decreased since then. The industry was focused on maintaining jobs and surviving this difficult period”, she said.

As she stressed, the entrepreneurs usually point to the problem of time set for adjusting to the new requirements. “Those changes in business models need a lot of time and money. Companies expect detailed guidelines from the European Commission. The cosmetic industry, but also other sectors have their concerns involved with the lack of certain information, which makes it impossible for them to fully comply with the guidelines to be introduced in near future,” Tryka underlined.

She provided an example of the production of wet wipes, in which semi-finished products, the appropriate fibers, may also come within implementing regulations. “The industry’s approach to those matters are responsible and sensitive for the current needs. Our cooperation with industries is perfect. When it comes to the implementation of circular economy, we have common goals”, she reassured.

Commission wants fewer packages

The EU has already regulated the questions of both disposable plastic products and packages. The directive was adopted in 1994, with further changes. For instance, in 2018 amendments were introduced on the limitation of the use of disposable plastic bags. Now, as the EU plan on circular economy is one of the key points of the European Green Deal, the packaging sector must prepare for a revolutionary change.

Until September open consultation will have a place on the restrictions concerning packages and other questions related to the reduction of this type of waste. Policy Officer for sustainable products and plastics at Directorate-General for Environment (DG ENV) at the European Commission Paulo Da Silva Lemos mentioned two other crucial projects – Initiative for Sustainable Development and Initiative for Green Energy Sources.

“They also involve the question of plastics. And by the Initiative for Sustainable Products we want to reduce the consumption of resources through promoting durability and reuse of products. We plan to implement it in near future”, said the EP representative.

He added that Brussels is open for discussion on the directive on disposable plastic products with stakeholders and does not exclude the possibility of changes in its guidelines. “We are engaged in this debate from the very beginning. We want the Council and the European Parliament to show more engagement and create detailed use guidelines. We hope to see those guidelines in the nearest months. They should make the situation clearer for stakeholders that want to comply,” promised Lemos.

As he reminded, the directive on packages states that until 2030 at least 70% of the packages on the EU market (counted by weight) will have to be processed and various types of packages will have to include a determined percent of recycled material. EC officials added that actions are also needed on the reduction of the use of packages, which will contribute the most to the reduction of the use of resources.

There is a lot of discussion about plastics in the EU, but the stakeholders, including the producers, want to rise up to the challenge for the sector resulting from the implementation of more pro-environmental and pro-climate solutions.