Environment: What should we do about plastic waste? New Green Paper opens EU-wide reflection
Plastic has become an unavoidable material in our modern world. Plastics are versatile and durable, but this durability can make disposal problematic. A Green Paper published by the European Commission today aims to launch a structured discussion about how to make plastic products more sustainable throughout their life cycle and reduce the impact of plastic waste on the environment.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “Managing plastic waste is a major challenge in terms of environmental protection, but it’s also a huge opportunity for resource efficiency. In a circular economy where high recycling rates offer solutions to material scarcity, I believe plastic has a future. I invite all stakeholders to participate in this process of reflection on how to make plastic part of the solution rather than the problem.”
Once in the environment, particularly in the marine environment, plastic waste can persist for hundreds of years. Up to 10 million tons of litter, mostly plastic, end up in the world’s oceans and seas annually, turning them into the world’s biggest plastic dump.
Plastic is often perceived as a cheap and disposable material in our « throw-away » society, and recycling rates are low. Half of all plastic waste generated in Europe goes to landfill, which should be avoided as plastic can contain hazardous components and disposal can result in undesirable emissions and concentrated, polluting residues.
The Green Paper underlines the key role that plastic plays in many industrial processes and applications, and the potential economic gains of higher recycling rates. As the world population grows and natural resources become scarcer, recycling plastics will be an alternative to the exploitation of virgin resources. To speed this change, better framework conditions are needed to support eco-design and environmental innovation, with waste prevention and recycling factored in to the design of plastic products.
The particular challenges posed by plastic waste are not specifically addressed in EU waste legislation at present. Member States should favour prevention and recycling over other modes of disposal, as is the case for all waste streams referred to in the Waste Framework Directive, but clearly more is needed. The Green Paper aims to gather facts and views in order to assess the impacts of plastic waste and define a European strategy to mitigate them. Stakeholders are invited to contribute their views on whether, and how, existing legislation should be adapted to deal with plastic waste and promote re-use, recycling and recovery of plastic waste over landfilling. Views are also sought on the effectiveness of potential recycling targets, and of economic measures such as landfill bans, landfill taxes and pay-as-you-throw schemes. The Green Paper also asks how to improve the modular and chemical design of plastic to improve recyclability, how to reduce marine litter and whether there is a need to promote biodegradable plastics.
The consultation, which includes 26 questions, will last until the beginning of June 2013. The result will feed into further policy action in 2014 as part of a broader waste policy review, which will look in particular at the existing targets for waste recovery and landfill as well as an ex-post evaluation of five directives covering various waste streams.
Within a little more than one century plastic has become indispensable in modern engineering and construction for mass production of consumer goods. In only 50 years, world-wide plastic production has increased from 1.5 million tonnes per year in 1950 to 245 million tonnes in 2008, a trend that is expected to continue. The marine environment is particularly vulnerable to plastic waste. Plastic waste forms 80 % of the enormous waste patches in the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, which cause sea species to suffer from entanglement or ingestion. The presence of plastic residues, even in the most remote areas of world seas and shores shows that there is a price to pay for the excess of plastic waste. Conventional plastic also contains a large number, and sometimes a large proportion of chemical additives which can be carcinogenic, provoke other toxic reactions or act as endocrine disruptors.
Some strategic elements to tackle plastic waste in the environment already exist in present waste legislation. The Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) focuses on elements such as life cycle thinking, waste prevention over waste operations, extended producer responsibility, product design, resource efficiency and resource conservation. Moreover, the 2011 Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and the 7th Environmental Action Plan, proposed by the Commission in 2012 and currently examined by the European Parliament and the Council, develop the reflection further to consider an EU-wide quantitative reduction target for marine litter.
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