The EU vision on plastic waste: is a safe and sustainable plastics industry possible?
In 2019, each EU inhabitant generated almost 180 kilograms of packaging waste on average. While paper and cardboard account for approximately 40% of packaging waste, plastic ranks second with over 19%, closely followed by glass waste. Data from the last two decades show that packaging waste is increasing in the European Union. However, packaging is also an important material in our everyday life. Among others, it helps keep food fresh preventing food waste, enables medical innovation (e.g., bio-compatible plastic materials), and is a high-performance insulation material, that saves energy.
In 2018, the European Commission published “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”, addressing the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions. Following this document, the European Commission has published this August an opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on making packaging a safe, affordable and eco-friendly industry.
The environmental problems of plastics
Despite this material’s importance, changing how plastic is produced, used, and discarded must be a priority. Million tonnes of plastics end up in the oceans every year. With this being probably the most visible sign of plastic pollution, plastic litter impacts our lives and the environment on many levels. Considering the ambitious goal to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and an entirely circular economy by 2030, it is crucial to develop a strategy which addresses the challenges of plastic waste. According to estimates, the production and incineration of plastics emit around 400 million tonnes of CO2 per year worldwide.
Circular plastics economy: the EU vision and the Committee opinion
As the EU vision highlights, to move towards a more sustainable plastics economy, all players in the supply chain need to play a role. From manufacturers to designers, from retailers to consumers, all parties must respect the needs for reuse, repair, and recycling. Among others, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) recommends the following:
· Fully recyclable and renewable packaging materials is necessary to foster the development of a circular economy in the whole production chain.
· Packaging design must follow the ‘eco-design’ principles, reducing size and weight, when not undermining safety. In addition, packaging production must focus on well-established and recycling technologies and dispersion prevention, in order to reach a full circular packaging economy by 2023.
· European institutions should promote minimum standards to support European companies in this transition. The EESC asks for the application of verification criteria regarding ILO convention on human and workers’ rights throughout the value chain of the packaging sector. Nonetheless, EU authorities need to make sure that packaging from non-EU companies is compliant and follows best practices.
· Implementation of the Deposit Return Schemes system (DRS). The DRS foresees a deposit when buying certain products, reimbursed upon return of the product or their packaging.
· The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) should undergo a revision to ensure a better environmental performance, as the Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0 foresees.
How the regulatory landscape can shape the vision
To turn this vision into reality, mutual efforts are necessary. Among many steps, the Opinion published in August 2022 stresses out that establishing a clear and common regulatory framework is essential. Internally, each EU market must ensure an equal application of the regulatory requirements of sustainability. In doing so, the regulatory landscape must be harmonised across the whole EU territory. In this sense, national measures should not introduce restrictions to the free movement of goods and packaged good and cause market distortions within the EU. Together with better informed consumers and clear guidelines for all players of the supply chain, a common regulatory framework for the packaging industry is necessary to move forward our big 2030 goal.
European Commission. (2018). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions. Retrieved on 07/09/2022.
European Commission. (2022). Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on making packaging a safe, affordable and eco-friendly industry. Retrieved on 12/09/2022.
Eurostat. (2022). Packaging waste statistics. Retrieved on 07/09/2022.
EUR-Lex. (2022). European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC of 20 December 1994 on packaging and packaging waste. Retrieved on 12/09/2022.