The European strategy for plastic in a circular economy
The role of the European Union
Plastics are amongst the materials most responsible for pollution owing to the production techniques used, the toxicity of the elements released when they are burned during disposal and the damage caused if left in the environment. The situation in seas is particularly serious: plastics make up 80% of the waste collected there. The spread of microplastics, small fragments that do not exceed 5 millimetres, is also worrying owing to the impact they can have on marine biodiversity and health. Ultimately, the dispersion of plastic products into the environment, often after they have been used only once and not properly recycled or disposed of, is a cause of environmental degradation, a threat to health and an economic waste.
When it comes to plastic, the European Union (EU) plays an important role. From an economic perspective, it is the second largest global producer after China and some 60 thousand companies are involved in the plastics sector with more than one and a half million workers. But European countries are also amongst those most responsible for the production of plastic waste (25.8 million tonnes a year), with a recycling rate of 30%, still considered to be too low. With the aim of combining environmental protection, health protection and the economic needs of the manufacturing sector, the EU has, for some years, endeavoured to improve the processing of plastic waste and reduce the use of, for example, plastic bags.
The new European strategy
Since January 2018, initiatives in this field have been included in the wider framework of the circular economy by the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. This proposes "a new plastics economy", whose basic philosophy is to extend the lifecycle through reuse and repair, as well as increasing recycling and promoting the use of more sustainable materials. Investments aimed at renewing materials and production techniques will lead to benefits both for the economic system and for the environment and quality of life. This choice is considered strategic because it constitutes a concrete contribution to fulfilling the commitments made by the EU at the COP21 in Paris for the fight against climate change and is part of the United Nations' 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Indeed, 2030 is indicated in the Commission document as the target year for achieving a series of objectives. Let us recall some of them: making plastic packaging reusable or recyclable in the European market; increasing the share of recycled plastic waste from 30% to 50%; growing the market for recycled or innovative plastic products; reducing CO2 emissions and dependence on fossil energy thanks to advances in recycling and reuse; combating the spread of microplastics in water and reducing plastic left in the environment; reducing the number of disposable plastic bags used annually to 90 per person in 2019 and 40 in 2026.
A challenge which calls for broad collaboration
Achieving this set of objectives requires broad cooperation from the stakeholders involved (operators in the plastics industrial chain, citizens, local and national institutions of the Member States) and the use of different tools. To achieve this, the Commission is, on the one hand, calling for the existing legislation to be revised, such as the directive on packaging, or the adoption of new standards, such as the directive on port waste; on the other hand, it is focusing on investment in infrastructure and innovation, given that the growth on plastics recycling calls for a new way of designing materials and products. In addition to the funds already present in some European funds and programmes (the Structural Funds, Horizon 2020), provision has been made for a further 100 million euro between now and 2020.
The project outlined by the Commission is ambitious in the objectives and integrated approach planned to achieve them. In fact, it is a question of establishing new production methods, which have an impact on the economic system, and to support changes in lifestyles and in the purchasing choices of citizens. Apart from the legislative and financial tools, the success of the initiative therefore depends on the ability to build greater awareness at the various levels involved (public institutions, businesses, citizens) so that the perspective of circularity in the economy becomes a reality.
These few lines suggest the relevance of this initiative and the importance of the theme of plastic in many regards (environmental impact, economic relevance, contributions to quality of life). The search for ways to go in the future can be guided by different visions and criteria, among which - one must not forget - there is also the perspective of integral ecology promoted by Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato si’. This perspective deserves to be better known and put into practice.
Giuseppe Riggio SJ
Editorial office of Aggiornamenti Sociali
Translated from the original text in Italian
This article is an abstract from an article published in Aggiornamenti sociali.
EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.