The European Union’s plastics strategy, announced at the beginning of 2018, will have a sustainable impact on the production and consumption of these materials. While the ban on single-use products has made a strong mark, only a global structural system can bring real change to the world of plastics. Michel Sponar, representative of DG Environment in the European Commission, outlined the new European regulations that he will be explaining during the Waste Forum.
What prospects does the European Union's plastics strategy offer?
Michel Sponar*: This first European plastics strategy aims to protect the environment from pollution by plastics, while promoting growth and innovation. It covers the entire plastics issue and is ultimately part of the transition towards a more circular economy. Plasticis a major challenge that must be addressed: although it is still essential for many companies, we can no longer stand by while it piles up within our ecosystems and, in particular, within our oceans. This law is designed to set in motion a fundamental process that will transform the way in which these products are designed, manufactured, used and recycled, while creating new opportunities for investment.
What are the main actions?
Michel Sponar: We must remember that this is a complete and clearly articulated set of complementary measures, at once realistic and pragmatic, as well as ambitious. In short, all plastic packaging will be recyclable by 2030 and the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced. The regulation reveals true awareness. In particular, regarding the impact of micro-plastics that are intentionally added to products and which we seek to ban (cosmetics, detergents.... But also micro-plastics that are unintentionally released into the environment (textiles, industrial processes, tire wear …) and accumulate in the food chain and ecosystems.We want to reduce these emissions.
« A complete and clearly articulated set of complementary measures, at once realistic and pragmatic, as well as ambitious: recyclability of all plastic packaging by 2030, strong reduction in single-use products... »
Single-use products are specific targets…
Michel Sponar: Obviously, simply because they account for 70% of the waste found on European beaches. The plastics strategy, the Marine Framework Directive and the directive on single-use plastic products, which will be voted on in the coming weeks, impose strong, and no doubt the most advanced measures. Wherever there are alternatives, the approach will be radical, with a total ban (straws, glasses, plates and cutlery, cotton swabs...) that will immediately affect all European consumers. Just as radically, polystyrene packaging will also be banned, because it is impossible to recycle, as will new plastics, the so-called “oxo-plastics” or “oxo-degradables”, which are supposed to be degradablebut actually just break down into millions of particles that are invisible to the naked eye but are released into the environment.
Some of these single-use products are still tolerated however?
Michel Sponar: Yes, when there is insufficient information or a lack of credible alternatives, the Member States will have to set reduction targets, and the results will be evaluated after 5 years. This is the case for fast growing sectors where we need to define our means of action; that is no easy task in some of our countries, in particular those with very urban lifestyles that rely upon ready-to-eat packaged food for example. But this mandatory monitoring with the long-term evaluation of the achievement of defined objectives, should lead to reduced consumption.
On a more generic level, is the objective to develop recycling?
Michel Sponar: Where recycling channels exist, we raise the objectives to a very high level, at around 90 %, mainly for plastic bottles. Either Member States have recycling channels that they must constantly strive to make more efficient, or they must set up economic incentives to encourage the return of bottles to recycling channels. The Commission decided that there was no point in imposing a ban, or in believing that reduced consumption could be imposed but, to the contrary, that it was possible to considerably improve collection and recycling. Meanwhile, the recyclability of bottle tops must be increased (they are now attached to the bottles).
« Sometimes radical, and inventive when it extends the concept of EPR to plastic products, this new strategy boosts a positive trajectory »
But when there is no recycling?
Michel Sponar: When there is no substitute and no recycling channel, we encourage more research andwe impose the concept of extended producer responsibility, which is also revolutionary. This extension of EPR, in particular to all waste thrown into the street, is a real event. Whether we’re talking cigarette butts – the 1stcategory of waste found on the beaches! -, wipes or hygiene products: obliging producers to put their hands in their pockets to financially contribute to setting up collections systems, awareness raising campaigns and labelling on these products, will be a very strong position.
Will these actions be enough?
Michel Sponar: There is reason to be optimistic. We have the positive experience of plastic bags while the EPR concept has generated a lot of discussion among the authorities and economic players, and has developed the notion of co-responsibility. The law is strong, it has impulse fundamental change through a practical and yet ambitious approach: it is our common challenge to make it work. We can therefore believe in a trajectory in which all packaging plastics will soon be recycled, while validating technologies that European economic actors will be able to export all over the world.
What should we say to those who have a rather critical view of this European strategy?
Michel Sponar: That we have to cope with nuance. Of course, we only believe in the gradual disappearance of non-recyclable plastics. But by improving collection and recycling, we believe they will become "circular plastics" that will be less problematic and will no longer be found on the streets and in ecosystems. In Europe, we have a very effective legal infrastructure: the plastics strategy, the framework directive on the marine environment, waste legislation or the latest revision of the framework directive all add high targets to reduce discards at sea, not to mention the REACH regulations … We must be aware that the European Union plays a major role, acting as a reference on the global scale. We are very active in the G7, in the G20 and in the United Nations, and all of our choices – the ban on oxoplastics, the offensive on single-use products and micro-plastics … – both directly affect our geographic area and leave their mark on people's minds well beyond Europe.
* Michel Sponar is Deputy Head of the Marine Environment and Water Industry Unit in the Environment DG of the European Commission.