Jan Huitema MEP: EU must tackle price gap between secondary and virgin plastics

Jan Huitema: "Products need to have a mandatory amount of recycled material, so that increases the demand for secondary raw materials." [© European Union 2018 - Source : EP]

This article is part of our special report Plastic waste management.

Jan Huitema, a Dutch lawmaker who is in charge of guiding the circular economy strategy through the European Parliament, says his report will include requirements for products to contain a minimum amount of recycled material.

The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0, adopted earlier this year, will make sure products placed on the EU market are designed to last longer, be easier to reuse, repair and recycle, and incorporate as much recycled material as possible instead of primary materials.

It has fallen to Liberal Dutch MEP Jan Huitema to draft the European Parliament’s report on the strategy.

Jan Huitema is a Dutch centrist lawmaker in the European Parliament for the centrist Renew Europe political group. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Dave Keating.

The circular economy plan has some quite ambitious targets, aiming to halve municipal waste by 2030. Do you think the industry is ready to rise to this challenge?

That really depends. I think the industries are capable of doing much more than they’re doing,  but they’re hampered by two barriers: lack of competition between secondary raw materials and virgin materials, and availability of quality recycled materials.

This year, with the low oil price, we can see clearly there’s a big gap between those two. We as policy makers should really look seriously how we can help in that. In our report we’re mentioning several possible ways to overcome this. First of all, products need to have a mandatory amount of recycled material, so that increases the demand for secondary raw materials.

Second, we’ve set a criteria for public procurement, that recycled content of recycled material should have priority in there and they shouldn’t only look to the lowest price. Also the Commission didn’t mention very clearly in their strategy the idea of CO2 rewarding. We could think about certificates [to reward companies for reducing CO2 of packaging]. You then ask the question, how do you measure this? That’s something we are mentioning also in our report. It’s key to have good indicators, like Lifecycle analysis, and a certification system.

We believe it’s necessary to do so, and it’s also not completely new to have such a system, we have it in the EU ETS. If you’re talking about circularity, there is no beginning and there is no end. You have to reward all stakeholders within that loop.

What else do you want to add to the Commission’s strategy, and when will your report be adopted?

In general we’re focusing more on resource efficiency targets, or maybe a resource use target or consumption target. Some member states, including mine, have the ambition to halve the use of resources and other virgin materials by 2030. That’s all of course about prevention and really making it clear what the direction should be in the future on circularity.

We were supposed to have a vote in the environment committee in December and then a vote in plenary in January. But it’s such a popular topic we’ve seen 1,001 amendments tabled. So we said we need a little more time to come forward with a text.

We’re hoping for a committee vote in January. We want to give the commission good backup and support for their strategy,  but we also want a politically ambitious report.

Have you seen good examples of voluntary company initiatives to reduce plastic waste?

Plenty. There are a lot of start-ups working together with civil society and NGOs, mainly for example on new innovations in recycling of plastics. We mentioned that in our report. Some of them are using for example chemicals, which is sometimes called chemical recycling. The question is how you are doing it. Are you using the chemicals just as a catalyser, so you’re not using it but reusing it?

That’s interesting, I’ve seen some startups already bought up by huge soda companies. Look at soda PET bottles. At the moment they’re recycled mechanically, but at some point the bottles, especially the transparent ones, get polluted too much and aren’t transparent any more, they get a brown colour and that’s not nice. But with chemical recycling you can purify that again.

Is chemical recycling safe?

We need to do the same as what you’re doing with most of the chemical legislation. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You’re working with chemicals, that’s nothing new, so that legislation has to apply.

There’s no single innovation called chemical recycling, there’s many different types. Some are not very desirable. Others are very clean because chemicals are reused or they’re using less harmful chemicals. There it would be good if you would make some sort of legislation with experts to find some sort of lifecycle analysis to find the benefit of recycling.

If there’s a risk to environment and human health you can say we shouldn’t use those here, but other times we should say it’s good to use those and it would be a shame to not allow them, because the alternative is those plastics go to landfill or are incinerated because they can’t be recycled. There’s a trade-off there.

Is the Commission plan focused enough on reuse?

No, I don’t think so. Of course they’re mentioning it, and of course it’s more concrete to talk about circularity in recycling. But indeed I think we should have a discussion also about our economy. It’s now very much a product-owning economy, we should think about how we can move to a more lease economy.

That’s a difficult one also for me. It’s quite abstract in how you do this, but we need a political discussion on this. What the commission does mention is they’re focusing on durability of products, setting requirements for that and for repairability, for design so the products can be reused or components can. That’s massively important at beginning to prevent waste.

Changing the design phase of products is crucial. 80% of the environmental impact of a product is determined by its design phase. How can we design products to be long-lasting?

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