Plastics enter the circular economy: the EU strategy

Plastics enter the circular economy: the EU strategy

March 02, 2018

Plastics enter the circular economy: the EU strategy

It is difficult to imagine a world without plastics today, but the growing usage of this material has huge costs for the sustainability and health of the environment and the human race, so much so that the entire world is trying to do something about it. 

On 16 January 2018, the “European strategy for plastics in a circular economy” was officially adopted: a plan that will transform the way plastic items are designed, used, produced and recycled inside the Union - according to the European Commission website. "If we do not change the way we produce and use plastics, by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans" stated Frans Timmermans, the first Deputy President of the European Commission to have responsibility for sustainable development among others, highlighting one of the key problems linked to our current usage of plastics: the lack of efficient recycling techniques.   

A sea of waste...

Looking at the available data, the picture is even clearer (and more worrying). In 1950, plastic production totaled 1.5 million tons/year, by 2015 the yearly production had reached 322. Up to 13 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean every year. A real problem, if we consider our desire to achieve environmental sustainability and reach the specific Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations for 2030, but also a very serious problem for the health of humans and other animals. Producing plastics requires energy, water and fossil raw materials; plastics thrown in the sea or on the soil splits into very small fragments (microplastics) that enter the food chain and often reach humans. Furthermore, we should not forget that 25 million tons of plastics are produced every year in Europe, of which only 30% is recycled, and that globally plastics account for 85% of the waste that literally cover our beaches.


.... that turns into an opportunity

The world of food production and distribution is also responsible for excessive use of plastics. With this in mind, the European Commission decided that by 2030 all plastic packaging on the European markets must be recyclable. Single use plastic bag usage will be reduced, with the objective of reaching 90 bags a year per person by 2019 and 40 by 2026. There will be ad hoc rules on dumping waste in the sea and heavy fines for those who break them. These are just a few of the targets set in the European Commission's document on including plastics in the framework of the circular economy - an economic system characterized by the basic idea that materials should be regenerated and reused - which will finally help Europe move towards sustainable production with low environmental impact, in full compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals


"It is an opportunity for everyone: this strategy contributes to the reduction of land and sea pollution, it pushes innovation, competitiveness and high quality jobs" explained Jiri Katainen, Deputy President with responsibility for jobs, growth and competitiveness, who then added: "Furthermore, consumers have the opportunity to make informed choices for the well being of the environment and their own health". 

Reinventing plastics

In the European document on plastics, whose details will be defined in the course of 2018, the experts clarify that this material is not negative per se. For example, innovative plastic materials used on cars and planes made it possible to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and fuel consumption; insulating plastics enable us to save energy, while packaging helps guarantee food security and reduce food waste. All in all, however, the current production and consumption system cannot exploit the opportunities offered by plastics without heavy damage to human health and the environment, also impacting on sustainability. 

Including plastics within the context of the circular economy could be the solution, and this is the aim of the recent European strategy, which is part of the wider “2015 Circular Economy Action Plan”, and its most recent updates. This innovative scenario leaves ample room for research, and Europe earmarked a special 100 million Euro fund for researching new "green" plastics. 

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