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European Commissioner for Environment
Plastic: let’s keep the Fantastic and get rid of the Drastic
Conference on "The role of plastic waste in a circular economy"
Brussels, 30 September 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I don't know if any of you ever saw the film "Recipes for Disaster”. It shows a family trying to live for a year without petrol-based products. I don’t think I’m giving away the plot by telling you that they find it virtually impossible. it particularly shows just how much we have come to depend on "fantastic plastic". To the extent that we have used as much plastic in the last 10 years as we did in the last century, and in Europe consumption is still increasing at 5 % every year.
Plastic has so many great qualities; it is versatile, durable, cheap and light. But of course some of those qualities make it “drastic plastic” for our environment and for marine life. It is often more durable than the products we make with it, and its low cost means we are using more and more short lived and disposable products.
So it is time to look carefully at how we use plastic, and particularly what we do to in it when we've finished using it. And that is exactly what we are doing.
7 months ago I launched – with the help of Jeremy Irons – the Green Paper on Plastic Waste. The response to our call for opinions just shows how important this issue is. We received more than 270 responses, including from 14 Ministries of Environment and from some national Parliaments. The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions have already adopted opinions on the Green Paper, and the European Parliament's opinion is expected very soon.
Of course it takes a long time to analyse all these responses and structure the results on such a complex issue, but the evaluation process is moving on and I can already today give you a preview of stakeholders’ views.
Before I go into detail, let me briefly explain how the Green Paper on Plastic Waste fits into the wider picture. Into our efforts to make the use of resources more efficient, to develop a circular economy, and to combat marine pollution.
The Resource Efficiency Roadmap set out clear milestones towards a resource efficient Europe. We must move towards a circular economy:
These objectives were confirmed by the European Parliament and Member States in the 7th Environment Action Programme.
If we look at plastic production processes and plastic waste management today, we are a very long way from these objectives. Even in the best performing Member States, recycling rates for plastic are fairly low. In 2012 only around 24 % of plastics were collected for recycling1 in the EU. Around 50 % of plastics still go to landfill and the rest is incinerated. This has to change!
So plastic waste exemplifies the challenges we have in creating a circular economy. The Green Paper deals specifically with plastic waste as a single horizontal waste stream, but as part of the resource efficiency and resource conservation story. The central issues around which the paper asks 26 specific questions are: “how can we do more with less” and “how can we address resource depletion effectively”.
There are 4 fundamental points made in the Green Paper:
So what were the main results from the Green Paper consultation process?
First who did we hear from?
And what is the overall message that came across?
And if we look at the answers to the specific questions we can see some clear messages:
Ladies and gentlemen,
This consultation shows that – in the EU – we have started to move in the right direction. There is a very high level of convergence between the answers we received and the more general policy objectives we are already pursuing on European waste policy.
Concrete preparatory work on diverting plastics from landfill and on increasing plastic recycling targets is already going on in the upcoming review of waste targets. Other issues will be addressed as part of the regulatory fitness check of our waste stream directives, particularly the packaging waste directives. We should also adopt very soon a specific legislative proposal concerning lightweight plastic bags.
Targets are still a useful driver for investment in better waste management, but the real driver leading us towards a circular economy is the economic rationale for treating our waste as a resource. Just implementing existing waste legislation properly would create 400,000 jobs in the EU. The benefits in terms of materials savings and reduction of greenhouse emissions are also significant.
But the potential of moving towards a truly circular economy – where materials are used again and again instead of going on a one-way trip – is huge. I believe that with the Green Paper on plastic waste in the environment this debate has gained momentum and that it will help us to move another step closer to a circular economy.
Thank you for your contributions to the public consultation and I wish you an interesting conference. I hope that you can help us to keep the "fantastic", and get rid of the "drastic" in plastic.
BIOIS, 30 August 2013, Study on an increased mechanical recycling target for plastic.