Elisabeth Hoffmann is a project consultant based in APCO’s Brussels office.
Some consumers, commentators and politicians have voiced their concern that, despite the fact that plastic is a fully recyclable material, nearly 50 % on average of all plastic waste in the EU is still being landfilled.
In light of the increasing amount of plastic waste and its impact on the environment, pressure groups and activist MEPs have expressed surprise that so far there has been no comprehensive policy response at EU level. The Packaging Directive and the Waste Framework Directive both address several relevant aspects, but the EU has lacked a focused and strategic approach until now.
With the launch of the Green Paper on ‘Plastic Waste in the Environment’ on 7 March, the European Commission is now starting its formal reflection process on how to make plastic products more sustainable, reduce the impact of plastic waste on the environment, and assess the implementation of EU legislation. Green Papers mainly aim at stimulating discussions among stakeholders and policy makers. It can be best described as a fact-finding exercise which, depending on the outcome and political will, could potentially lead to some form of legislation. Industry stakeholders such as supermarkets, the food and drink industry, manufacturers of products containing plastic, and obviously the plastic industry itself therefore have a strong interest in taking part in the forthcoming discussion on plastic waste.
The Commission defined a set of questions in its Green Paper, inviting all relevant stakeholders to submit their views as part of a Public Consultation, which will be open until 7 June 2013. Stakeholders can comment on a wide range of aspects related to plastic waste, including whether and how legislation should be adapted to manage plastic waste and encourage reuse, recycling and recovery; the effectiveness of potential recycling targets and economic measures, such as bans, taxes on landfilling or pay-as-you-throw schemes; or the need for voluntary industry action.
This reflection process is likely to involve a wide range of stakeholders, including consumer groups, environmental organisations, academia and industry (e.g. plastic sector, retailers, food and product manufacturers using plastic packaging and any manufacturers producing products which contain plastic).
The Commission Green Paper outlines several ideas for actions which would have an impact on the wider business community. To highlight just a few, retailers would for example be impacted by the introduction of measures aimed at reducing the single use of disposable products such as plastic bags as it would force them to rethink their current policies. The introduction of deposit and return systems for plastic products such as PET beverage bottles would particularly affect the drink industry and require investment in the necessary infrastructure. Information on the environmental footprint would touch upon product labelling, while the promotion of biodegradable or bio-based plastics produced from renewable resources could spur innovation in the plastic sector and encourage businesses to use new forms of plastic packaging. The industry is likely to support measures such as the creation of sustainable packaging guidelines for producers and retailers which, while not legally binding, could nevertheless do much to increase environmental awareness. On the other hand, environmental organisations are expected to call for legislative changes to ensure the reduction of plastic waste in the EU.
The outcome of the Public Consultation will feed into the Commission’s current review of existing European waste legislation which will be completed in 2014. Hence, no concrete measures on plastic waste can be expected before that date. The launch of the Green Paper only represents the very beginning of the plastic waste discussion in Europe. PlasticsEurope has already welcomed the Commission’s Green Paper as a catalyst to achieve the vision of ‘Zero Plastics to Landfill by 2020’. It is, however, not simply a case of supporting general calls for better plastic waste management and higher recycling rates and it remains to be seen how the concrete measures and proposed legislative changes will affect industry in Europe and beyond.