Thought leadership from our experts

The new European strategy for plastics in a circular economy

Plastic as waste

Plastic represents one of the most commonly used substances. It is used in the production of primary objects, such as cups, bags, cell phones, laptops, just to name a few, as well as secondary objects such as packages. Summing up, we are surrounded by plastic in our day-to-day life.

Taking into consideration its relative cheapness, the worldwide proliferation of the substance in modern production contributed to the creation of our consumerist society. Today's products are alarmingly disposable generating huge amounts of waste. In fact, every product exists on a suspensive condition: the holder's will is enough for the product to become waste.

The need for a new strategy for plastic

What happens to plastic as soon as it loses its nature of product and assumes the nature of waste?

This question becomes all the more urgent when, given the harmful environmental effects of waste and its impact on proper urban planning, one is confronted with data such as those concerning the amount of plastic waste generated annually in the European Union area: 26 million tons.

Attempted solutions to hazardous waste management based on the hierarchy of priorities principle have been widely put forth – reduce waste generation, reuse products whenever possible, recycle in the remaining instances. However good the intentions, the real-life impact of such policies has been underwhelming, especially so when considering the expectations of the European Union legislator.

Assuming plastic waste is properly managed through the Three R's policy, then how to explain that less than 30% of plastic waste is currently being recycled? What is the final destination of more than 70% of the plastic produced? Of course, one could idealistically suppose that all that unrecycled waste was thus being processed under one of the other two R's. However, that is not the case – 31% of plastic ends up in landfills and the remaining 39% is incinerated. Confronted with this background, the European institutions have acted, at both the political and the legislative levels, to counteract this unflattering trend. The most recent of these actions is the European Commission's Communication of the 16th January 2018:"A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy".

The circular economy in the waste market

First, one ought to recognize that however waste may not be of interest to its producer/holder, it may be so to a third party; the third party may even be willing or eager to acquire that waste for large sums of money in order to repurpose it or revive it – "we cannot afford to waste waste".

There are several reasons which can explain the third party's interest in another party's waste. We can roughly divide them in two categories: a direct need for that waste as raw material; the management of waste itself as the commercial reason behind the acquisition (e.g., waste conveyors, landfill operations, etc.).

These third parties, who are interested in waste and its recovery, are the essential players in the so-called circular market, through which product becomes waste and waste becomes product and so on in an ideally infinite course.

Accordingly, the Commission acknowledges that the major challenge of a circular economy, especially in the waste market, is the involvement and coordination of private interests of various players with the underlying public interest that regulates the good functioning of this market, both economically and environmentally.

Moreover, we are dealing with a market in which the State (in its regulatory capacity), on the one hand, and pure unregulated economic interest, on the other hand, both intervene with the same strength, leading to a paradoxical situation: being part of this market can be both an obligation and a market opportunity, especially for consumers.

From here on the problems of enforcing a strategy begin to emerge.

The goals and the proposals of the New Strategy for 2030

This European Strategy has basically three main axes:

1) "By 2030, all plastics packaging placed on the EU market is either reusable or can be recycled in a cost-effective manner": from 2030 onwards, packaging production based on non-renewable/disposable plastic should be prohibited. The objective is to achieve a full production of plastic packaging based only on reusable or recyclable plastic at an economically attractive cost thus contributing to the blossoming of a strong circular economy;

2) "By 2030, more than half of plastics waste generated in Europe is recycled": from 2030 onwards, 50% of the production of plastics must fully rely on recycled waste, whilst the other half can still be produced by more traditional means (e.g. using non-recycled plastics). This should be achieved by continually increasing the production of recycled plastics, with a final, long-term aim of becoming the sole source of plastics used throughout the Union market;

3) "By 2030, sorting and recycling capacity has increased fourfold since 2015, leading to the creation of 200 000 new jobs, spread all across Europe": Member States, in coordination with the other key market players, must ensure a fourfold increase in the waste collection, sorting and recycling networks, with all its inherent costs. The environmental benefits and the creation of new jobs stand as pay-offs for this investment.

In order to achieve these goals, the Commission proposes a series of measures, based on an efficient waste recovery scheme and designed to optimize the circular market for plastics1:

1) To financially encourage changes in the design of plastic products in such a way as to render them more suitable for re-use or recycling;2

2) Incentivize the demand for recycled plastic – from a cost-benefit perspective, it is not yet efficient for the players to deepen this market;

3) Improve plastics composition information systems so that operators can more easily perform risk and cost analysis associated with recycling;

4) Improve collection and routing systems in order to create an efficient network;

5) Implement R&D incentives in order to find better plastic production solutions for more economically attractive re-use or recycling.

Obstacles to the implementation

As in any ambitious political strategy, its implementation depends essentially on two tests: a technically tuned normative framework and a deep knowledge of the underlying economics in order to present the right incentives to the players.

Keeping this in mind, two questions arise:

1) What technical and normative framework will the European institutions find suitable to this strategy?

2) How to encourage market players, particularly producers, waste management operators and final consumers, to be an active part of the implementation of this strategy?

Regarding the first question, the answer can be none other than to patiently wait for the Union to take action.

As for the latter, we believe that only through very clear and relatively generous incentives, as was the case in the strategy for increasing clean energy production (e.g., feed-in-tariff), will the objectives of this strategy be achieved in such a short period of time. One should acknowledge that the implementation of the referred goals depends to a large extent on the goodwill of the market players. Economics show that profits speak louder than environmental concerns and only clear financial incentives can have the lead role in making players change their activity from a disposable plastic model, which tends to be cheaper, to a production model based on renewable plastic.

From a financial point of view, one can expect municipal systems to be overburdened by the steep requirements of the 2030 Strategy – which asks for much wider and more efficient waste collection, sorting and recycling networks. Municipal expenditures will soar, at least on a short-to-medium-term basis.

With regard to consumers, the Commission relies, as expressed in the Communication, on the goodwill of these players. It is worth remembering that most plastics are household solid urban waste, i.e. the holders of such waste are ordinary citizens. As stated before, efforts must be done to keep improving the waste management networks, hence tackling head-on this particular issue. However, a substantial change in mentality is still necessary to make it happen since the Union does not seem intent on moving towards a punitive enforcement, based on sanctions against ordinary citizens who fail to properly separate their domestic wastes into the designated recycling bins.

These goals, no matter how ambitious they may be, should not be impossible to achieve. For example, in Portugal the goal of recycling plastic packaging was set at 22.5% for 31 December 2011. According to the "Map of compliance with the recycling targets for packaging and packaging waste, by material, for the year of 2012" of the PERSU 2014-2020, this value was fulfilled above the target, amounting to 30%.

Summing up

The New Strategy is on the one hand ambitious and wide-ranging but, on the other hand, from a socio-economic perspective, it is understated and relatively limited. Enforcing this Strategy will be a challenge but its success will depend largely on an effective monitoring system allowing for the correction or replacement of ineffective measures en cours de route.