Plastics Industry under pressure as Europe prepares roadmap towards sustainability

The European Commission’s Strategy on Plastics has attracted a lot of attention over the last couple of months.

Expected to be released in December, it will put forward the Commission’s vision for improving the sustainability of the plastics industry in Europe, as a key element of its Circular Economy Strategy.

The Plastics strategy will look at measures to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, by boosting plastic recycling levels and limiting plastic leakage.

It will put forward a combination of policy tools that could be drawn on – including awareness-rising, existing products policies, funding or regulatory action.

Based on the comments from high-level Commission officials and a recent leak of a draft outline of the Strategy, if regulatory action is deemed appropriate, the Commission might opt for developing a broader framework under a “single legislative instrument”.


Main aspects of the strategy

Facilitating recycling and promoting the uptake of secondary plastics

A pivotal part of the Strategy is expected to focus on the promotion of plastics recycling. The measures proposed include standardising the requirements for placing packaging on the market to favour recycling and modulation of fees in the Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.

To support the development of innovative sorting and recycling technologies, funding is likely to be given through special calls for proposals under the Horizon 2020 framework.

In response to repeated complaints from the plastics industry and other stakeholders about the low uptake of secondary plastics, the Commission is also planning to establish minimum quality standards for these plastics, alongside economic incentives in certain plastics applications.


Restricting the use of microplastics and single-use plastics

Microbeads are tiny plastic pellets added to cosmetic products such as toothpastes, face and body scrubs, which are difficult to be captured by water treatment systems and, thus, easily make it into the seas.

Along with microplastics, or extremely small pieces of plastic debris, they have been singled out as the most important source of marine litter by academics and campaigners.

As a response, the Commission is considering regulatory options to significantly restrict the use of microbeads- and plastics, including an EU-wide restriction on the intentional addition of microplastics in cosmetics and detergents, as well as requirements for unintentional microplastics release.

The Plastics strategy will look at measures to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint

In an attempt to tackle littering of plastics waste in the environment, the Strategy is expected to suggest the possible development of EU legislation to restrict the use of single-use plastics such as packaging, bottles and cups.


Breaking stereotypes about biodegradable plastics

The Commission will also suggest that a framework should be put in place for biodegradable and compostable plastics to deal with “false claims” and avoid confusing consumers when sorting plastics. This could include harmonised rules for marking of these plastics.


Industry under pressure

The European Commission has kept its door open for suggestions from the plastics industry on how to move towards a more ‘circular’ and resource efficient use of plastics.

The industry has so far failed to respond with any tangible commitments however. Comments made by Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans at a recent stakeholder meeting hinted at some frustration at this and made it clear that industry needs to work together with the Commission. The Commission spokesperson has also said it expects industry to take commitments beyond the proposals that are to be put forward in the Strategy.

On the other side, NGOs have also accused the Commission of giving too much of an ear to industry concerns in designing the Strategy.

The official publication of the Plastics Strategy is expected at the beginning of December. While it will formalize the vision of the current Commission on the policy options to be pursued, any hard legislative changes flowing from the Strategy are only likely to be pursued by the new Commission leadership that will take the reins after the 2019 European elections.