Plastic production has skyrocketed in recent years. In 1950, it was 1.5 million tonnes; in 2019, 368 million tonnes. In fact, according to Greenpeace, we have produced more plastic in the last ten years than in the entire history of mankind. This has meant that we are creating real seas of plastic.
The sharp increase in production has resulted in a surge in waste. Some plastic products take up to 1000 years to decompose. Items we use every day, such as plastic bags, take about 150 years to biodegrade, while plastic bottles (made from PET or PVC) could take 500 years.
In Europe, of the post-consumer plastics collected in 2018 for treatment, 42.6% went to energy recovery (i.e., they were incinerated), 32.5% to recycling and 25% to landfill.
Moreover, half of the plastic to be recycled is treated outside the EU, due to lack of capacity, technology and insufficient financial resources. Until recently, much of it was sent to China and other Asian countries, but it often ends up in illegal landfills or polluting the sea and natural areas, which has led these countries to put a stop to the arrival of Western containers loaded with plastic waste.
To avoid increasing incineration and the accumulation of waste in landfills, the EU is looking for circular and environmentally friendly solutions.
What measures has the EU taken to declare war on plastic?
On 3 July, an EU directive came into force which bans the sale of the 10 most common single-use plastic products found on Europe's beaches: plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds...
Regarding packaging, the European Green Deal sets recycling targets for plastic packaging of 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030. To achieve this, the European Commission aims to make all packaging fully recyclable by 2030. This implies better design to make them suitable for recycling, as well as measures to incentivise this process in the market:
- Create quality standards for secondary plasticsImprove certification to increase both industry and consumer confidence
- Introduce mandatory minimum recycled content standards for certain products
- Persuade Member States to consider lowering VAT on recycled products. The European Parliament also approved the restriction of disposable plastic bags in 2015.
To reach these objectives, companies face two major challenges: the quality and price of the recycled product. Strong investment in R&D&I is needed to develop smarter and more recyclable plastic materials and to make recycling profitable for companies.