The European Commission has launched a consultation exercise on policy options for a further reduction of plastic waste. This move indicates that no action will be proposed before 2014 when EU waste legislation is due to be revised. The long-anticipated green paper comprises most, if not all, the policy options put out to consultation in 2011, including the phasing-out or banning of plastic waste landfilling. Arguing that a ban on plastic bags would violate the packaging waste directive, some manufacturers have already taken a stand against such a proposal. The European Commission's environment department says pricing measures to reduce the number of plastic bags in circulation should be examined. The department adds that 'soft measures' - such as guidelines for producers and retailers - could also be adopted to further reduce packaging waste, which has been calculated to represent 63% of all plastic waste generated.
In the European Union (EU 27), it is estimated that around 25 Mt of plastic waste was generated in 2008. Of this 12.1 Mt (48.7%) was landfilled while 12.8 Mt (51.3%) went to recovery, and only 5.3 Mt (21.3%) was recycled. While a projection to 2015 assumes an overall increase of 30 % in the level of mechanical recycling (from 5.3 Mt to 6.9 Mt), landfilling and incineration with energy recovery10 are expected to remain the predominant waste management pathways. Plastic production is going up with GDP and an associated overall increase in the generation of plastic waste between 2008 and 2015 of 5.7 Mt (23%). This is largely driven by a 24% rise in the packaging sector and is part of an unbroken trend of increasing plastic waste in Europe. In the absence of improved product design and improved waste management measures, plastic waste will increase in the EU as production increases. Trends observed in the EU are likely to be stronger in fast-growing economies like India, China, Brazil and Indonesia, but also in developing countries. The world's population is forecast to grow by 790 million every decade and may reach over 9 billion by 2050 with a new middle class of around 2 billion. This is likely to increase demand for plastic and the amount of plastic waste worldwide.
On the waste management side, collection and sorting of waste from electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) and plastics provide the greatest job opportunities, with a total of 40 and 15.6 jobs respectively being created per 1000 tons of material processed. Plastic recycling alone has the potential to create 162,018 jobs in the EU 27 if the recycling rate increases up to a level of 70% by 2020. Plastic is mostly used in packaging as a low-cost one-way product that is most often not reusable or not foreseen for reuse. The plastics converting market is dominated by plastic packaging (40.1%) followed by the building and construction sector (20.4%). The Plastics industry expects a long-term growth of around 4% globally, well ahead of expected global GDP growth. Europe is still a net exporter of plastic products with a value of €13 billion in 2009, but Chinese production has reached similar levels since 2008. Plastic waste is not specifically addressed by EU legislation despite its growing environmental impact. Only the Packaging Directive 94/62/EC has a specific recycling target for plastic packaging. The Framework Directive on waste 2008/98/EC sets a general recycling target for household waste which covers, among other materials, plastic waste. The Waste Framework Directive is relevant in some other respects. For instance, the Directive establishes extended producer responsibility as a key principle in waste management. It also sets out the waste hierarchy giving precedence to waste prevention, reuse and recycling over recovery, including energy recovery, and disposal. There persists, however, a sharp contrast between legislative requirements and actual waste management practice
The purpose of this Green Paper is to launch a broad reflection on possible responses to the public policy challenges posed by plastic waste which are at present not specifically addressed in EU waste legislation. The follow-up to the Green Paper will be an integral part of the wider review of the waste legislation that will be completed in 2014. This review will look at the existing targets for waste recovery and landfill as well as an ex-post evaluation of five directives covering various waste streams. The inherent characteristics of plastic create specific challenges for waste management. Plastic is relatively cheap and versatile with many industrial applications, leading to exponential growth over the past century; a trend that is set to continue. Secondly, plastic is a very durable material which outlives the products made of it. As a result, the generation of plastic waste is growing worldwide. The durability of plastic also means that uncontrolled disposal is problematic as plastic can persist in the environment for a very long time. The need to continue efforts to reduce the incidence and impacts of plastic in the marine environment was particularly highlighted at the Rio+20 Summit. There are not only challenges, but also opportunities arising from better management of plastic waste. Although plastic is a fully recyclable material, only a small fraction of plastic waste is at present recycled. Enhanced recycling would contribute to the aims of the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe adopted in 2011 and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and imports of raw materials and fossil fuels. Appropriately designed measures to recycle plastic can also improve competitiveness and create new economic activities and jobs. This Green Paper will help reassess the environmental and human health risk of plastic in products when they become waste, addressing their environmentally sound design, both functionally and chemically, and open a reflection process on how to tackle the problem of uncontrolled disposal of plastic waste and marine litter. It should also help move forward the reflection on internalization of life-cycle impacts, from raw material extraction to the end of life phase, into the costs of plastic products.