Circular economy and plastics become EU priorities

Over the past five years, circular economy and plastics pollution have become one of the priorities of the European Union (EU). The EU has been increasingly focusing on these topics by adopting several legislative and non-legislative initiatives to reduce plastic litter and stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy with the view to boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs.

In 2015, the European Commission published the Circular Economy Package, which included a circular economy action plan and a revision of the EU waste legislation that entered into force in summer 2018. The new waste laws introduce new and higher recycling targets, such as 70% recycling target for packaging waste by 2030, including 55% of plastic packaging waste, and a landfill reduction of maximum 10% of municipal waste by 2035. Furthermore, harmonised calculation rules for measuring recycling targets were established, as well as minimum requirements for extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. EPR schemes will have to be established for all packaging by the end of 2024, and separate collection obligations will be extended, in addition to paper, plastic, metal and glass waste, also to hazardous household waste, bio-waste and textile waste.

In addition to addressing waste and recycling, the EU adopted also comprehensive, material-specific strategies and legislation, in particular for plastics. In January 2018, the European Commission published the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, which sets for the first time a vision for EU’s new plastics economy. It states that by 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the EU market should be reusable or recyclable. The Strategy announces multiple actions e.g. to boost product design and recycled content, to improve separate collection of plastic waste, investment and innovation, and to reduce single-use plastics.

Part of this Strategy is a new law (directive) on single-use plastics, which entered into force in the summer of 2019 and is considered to be the most ambitious piece of legislation world-wide tackling marine litter. The directive tackles the most littered items found on Europe’s beaches and fishing gear and sets various measures for these different items. These measures include: bans of certain single-use plastic items (e.g. straws, cutlery, plates), consumption reduction targets, labelling and design requirements as well as awareness raising measures. Mandatory recycled content is introduced for the first time in EU legislation, of 25% in PET bottles from 2025 and 30% in all bottles from 2030. The new directive also sets a 90% separate collection target for single-use beverage bottles to be achieved by 2029. Deposit-return schemes are recommended in the directive as a way to achieve these targets. The directive furthermore extends EPR requirements to cover also the costs of litter clean-up and awareness raising.

Sustainability is at the forefront of core policy for many countries around the world, including the EU and its Member States. Such ambitions have also been confirmed by the European Commission’s President-designate Ursula von der Leyen, who has pointed to the “European Green Deal” as one of her priorities. Circular economy and plastics pollution will continue to be among the priorities for the next European Commission, which is said to take office in December 2019. Von der Leyen has announced several actions to further stimulate circular economy in the EU, such as the second circular economy action plan, focusing on priority sectors like construction, textile, food, mobility and ICT, expanding eco-design, decreasing over-packaging, establishing a regulatory framework for biodegradability, and tackling microplastics. The Commission is currently also looking into revising the essential requirements for packaging for more reuse and recycling, and is preparing a guidance document on EPR, which will include eco-modulation of EPR fees. By end 2024, it will look into introducing new targets for reuse, construction and demolition waste, commercial waste, textile waste and other. Moreover, the EU is currently considering a tax on plastic packaging waste. According to the upcoming Environment Commissioner, the new European Commission will be the greenest Europe has ever seen.

The EU has set ambitious goals and objectives which Member States will have to implement in the coming years. TOMRA Leads conference in June 2019 in Bulgaria provided a great place to showcase the latest plastic recycling technology, which can help Member States achieve the EU ambitions to transition towards a truly circular plastics economy, a key objective of the European Plastics Strategy and also one of the priorities for the next European Commission.