Currently, the European Union only recycles 30% of the plastic waste it generates. European Commission data shows that a significant part is being exported; 85% of which goes to China. This is about to change drastically.

The Chinese government recently announced it will ban imports of plastic waste. When the European Commission presented its Plastics Strategy in a Circular Economy on 17 January, Vice-President Jyrki Katainen called the Chinese ban “a positive crisis […] an excellent opportunity to create a single market for secondary plastic waste”. Moreover, the strategy he presented aimed for a 50% plastics recycling target for 2030. The Commission’s timing could not have been better, it seems. But what measures did the strategy introduce to meet this ambitious target and how do they affect industry?

While largely expected, it is striking that the strategy lacks concrete legislative proposals. It consists of three communications; a general one outlining Europe’s new plastics economy; one on the interface between chemicals, products and waste; and the other on a monitoring framework for the circular economy.

The strategy’s only legislative proposal is a Directive for Port Reception facilities for Waste. This proposal attempts to facilitate the process by which vessels drop off their on-board waste to the mainland by eliminating administrative burdens.  While this is an important environmental issue to address, it is not an area which will help overcome the current challenges around the reuse and recycling of plastics; which is proving a real conundrum for industry. The only legislative element of the Commission’s plastics strategy, on ports, proposes a change in the operation of public authorities in relation to waste, but not to industry or consumers.

Chemicals, Products and Waste: Testing the Water

The communication on the interface between chemicals, products and waste was certainly among the parts of the package most eagerly awaited by industry. The communication proposes two general solutions to prevent harmful chemicals from disrupting recycling and reuse of waste; substitution or reduction of the use of chemicals of concern; and increased exchange of information about secondary materials and the chemicals they contain. Rather than proposing tangible legislation, the Commission is opening a call for input for stakeholders to bring the work forward.

The communication proposes four issues which need to be addressed to achieve an uptake in recycling. Two issues fit into the larger scope of enhanced information-sharing. Firstly, the Commission focuses on improving communications and information sharing about chemicals in products throughout the supply chain. A study on this is expected to be finished by the end of 2019. Secondly, the Commission wants to harmonize EU end-of-waste rules by creating an online repository of national rules. The two remaining issues concern work on a decision-making methodology to inform decisions about which types of waste can be recycled and a set of guidelines on how to identify substances of concern in products.

Plastics Strategy: The Juncker Commission’s Heritage?

Two things to note from the interface communication are timing and a high level of industry-involvement. While many actions proposed in the package are intended to conclude around the European Elections of 2019, it will be the new Commission which will have to decide what legislative action should be taken. The remaining work under the Juncker Commission will largely be information gathering and preparing the ground for the incoming Commission which, if the Circular Economy is really to come to life, may have to put some legislative proposals on the table. The interface between chemicals, product and waste legislation is a particularly key challenge to overcome. At this stage, it remains uncertain what future proposals might look like. It is certain, however, that the plastics package is just the beginning of a longer process -  concrete legislation will not be implemented before 2020.

Due to the rather complex nature of the issue at hand and the Commission’s general fear of regulating (or over-regulating) too quickly, it is offering a significant role to industry to help lay the foundation of future plastics legislation. In the numerous studies, consultations and measures set out in the annexes, industry is continuously invited to participate. Moreover, the proposals made in the interface communication or monitoring framework for the Circular economy that most resemble tangible targets are generally aimed at making life easier for industry. For example, through increasing information-sharing on substances of concern or sharing best practices through industry-specific benchmarks laid out in the monitoring framework. Rather than setting targets itself at this stage, the Commission is furthermore asking stakeholders to come forward with voluntary pledges.

It is therefore not surprising that industry associations responded rather positively while NGOs were more reserved. According to Zero Waste Europe, the Commission “has fallen short to bring real change”. Plastics Europe, however, stated that it will aim to achieve 100% re-use, recycling and recovery of all plastics packaging in the EU by 2040. Others, such as EuroCommerce, also stressed the need for a “consistent framework at EU level” to safeguard the single market.

Drastic changes in the use of plastic waste in the EU’s Single Market will not happen overnight. The plastics package constitutes an important starting point, but it remains to be seen if the new Commission will put a similar emphasis on this matter. Until the end of the Juncker Commission’s mandate a lot will depend on industry. As the impact of China’s ban begins to show its impact on the EU market, this will certainly be a testing time. To quote Vice President Katainen, China’s ban does “create an excellent opportunity”.  It’s certainly an opportunity to see just how committed EU industry is to reducing its plastic waste and positively shaping future EU policy in this area. Like many other stakeholders, APCO Worldwide will be present at the Circular Economy stakeholder conference from 20 to 21 February in Brussels and we will continue to follow its development closely. 

Thomas Kerstens
Thomas Kerstens

Thomas Kerstens is a project assistant in APCO’s Brussels office. He mainly supports the work of the energy and environment practice, monitoring European legislative developments for clients. Read More

Elisabeth Hoffman
Elisabeth Hoffmann

Elisabeth Hoffmann is an associate director in APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office. She follows policies in the area of energy, environment, transport and climate change. Read More