Katainen: ‘We need to change the fundamentals of the plastics market’

Jyrki Katainen at the World Economic Forum 2018, in Davos. [© European Union, 2018 / Photo: Johanna Leguerre]

This article is part of our special report Packaging and the environment.

The European Commission is looking at different types of fiscal incentives to increase demand for recycled plastics, which are currently more costly than virgin materials, Jyrki Katainen told EURACTIV in an interview.

Jyrki Katainen is the European Commission’s Vice-President for growth and investment. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Dave Keating.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • All plastic packaging should be designed to be recyclable by 2030.
  • EU-wide regulation needed to set standards for plastic packages.
  • The Commission is looking into a broad range of incentives to increase demand for recycled plastics, including taxation.
  • After plastic bags, the EU executive is also looking at the next single-use plastic items that should be restricted.

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The Commission has made a very high-profile push for its plastics strategy. Why do we need a plastics strategy now?

There are several reasons. The first is pragmatic. We have done a very thorough analysis on how to address the plastic waste issue. We were collecting data and now we’re ready.

Plastic is a good material, it’s light and it’s cheap and it’s part of our society, and in certain cases plastics can add clear environmental value, like in lightweighting of transport.

But plastics have also been the basis of a throwaway linear economy for the past 50 years, and it’s not sustainable any more. We want to reduce the amount of plastic, and also to look at how we could get more value from plastic waste.

Every year Europeans generate some 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30% is collected for recycling. Some 95% of the value of plastic packaging is lost from the economy every year. We are asking, how can we keep the value in the market by recycling?

Commission maps out plastics vision in new strategy

The European Commission presented on Tuesday (16 January) its eagerly anticipated strategy on how the EU intends to approach plastic production and pollution over the next decade and beyond.

The strategy follows China’s decision to stop importing plastic from Europe to be recycled from 1 January, which has caused a build-up for European recyclers who now don’t know where to send the waste. What should be the EU response to the Chinese ban, in the short and long term?

In the short term it’s quite challenging, but we see this as a positive challenge for us.

Sending our waste to other countries is a stupid thing to do. We can keep materials here and try to find relatively quickly sustainable long-term solutions.

It should not be seen as waste in its traditional meaning, it should be seen as a secondary raw material which has value. But I know that all the existing plastic waste cannot be recycled because there are too many different types of plastics.

So one of our aims is to regulate the quality of plastic better than how we have done so far.

Chinese waste ban 'wake-up call' for European recycling

The EU has a trash problem. It used to ship 60% of plastics and 13% of paper collected for recycling to China, but Beijing has decided to curb its appetite for foreign waste. 

Part of the reason for the exports was that right now virgin plastics are cheaper to produce than recycled plastics in Europe, so manufacturers have not had incentives to use them. What kind of policies should be put in place to make recycled materials cheaper than virgin materials? Should plastics be taxed?

We can use our regulatory power. Currently the demand for high-quality recycled plastics remains very weak. That’s why one can say our single market is missing these two parts – the market for plastic packaging waste and for recycled plastic.

All plastic packaging should be designed to be recyclable by 2030. Work is now starting on [revising] the legal requirements for placing plastic packaging on the market. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not something you can do overnight either.

Recycling plastics is rather challenging. For each recycling stream the technical challenges are different. What we call plastic is actually a wide range of chemical mixtures, molecules that are difficult to disentangle. That’s why we need EU-wide regulation that sets standards for plastic packages.

Once we have this regulation in place, it will create clear incentives on what material can be used. It will make collection of plastic waste easier. We need to change the fundamentals of the plastics market. We need to make sure that the circular economy is as profitable as the current linear economy.

We are looking at different types of fiscal incentives. I can’t promise yet if we can find well-functioning incentives. Some people have talked about a plastic tax, for instance. But there are plenty of issues which must be clarified. Who should pay the tax – the plastic producer, the consumer, or both?

One could ask whether it would make more sense to introduce an EU-wide oil tax, because then the tax base would be even broader. But like most taxes, they are in the hands of member states, and it might be very difficult to get these kinds of proposals through, it would need unanimity in the Council.

Sometimes it’s very easy to introduce these taxes or charges, but the implementation is more difficult. But I don’t exclude any of these ideas.

Karmenu Vella: 'Well-designed' plastics tax could help hit environment targets

As the European Commission sketches out its vision for the future of plastic production and pollution in its new strategy, the EU executive’s environment chief, Karmenu Vella, explained how developments in China, Africa and Europe itself have shaped its plastics roadmap.

Many companies like Danone, McDonalds and Coca-Cola have announced their own private initiatives to lessen plastic waste, responding to public demand. How can these work as part of the strategy? Will companies’ focus on recycling alone be enough to solve the problem?

The voluntary commitments are very important. And if we manage to empower consumers to demand less plastics, it would be a very powerful tool.

We have had eco-design legislation and energy labelling legislation in place, and this has enabled consumer choice when they are buying things like refrigerators. There the consumers’ choices have helped the development of energy efficiency, it’s been a symbiotic relationship and led to significant energy savings.

The same thing could happen with plastics. That’s why the commission is looking at ways to empower consumers in the same manner.

Recycling alone is not enough however. We need to reduce the amount of plastic or at least the growth of plastic consumption. So that’s why, for instance, we are exploring opportunities how to further build on the positive experience with the single use plastic bag directive.

We are identifying what should be the other single use plastic items that should be restricted. This has a big impact on marine littering.

We need restrictions like this, but we cannot declare an entire war against plastics because it has also benefits – it can replace heavier materials, so the CO2 costs are lower.

UN Environment chief: We shouldn't wait for the oceans to turn into a plastic swamp

At the latest United Nations environment summit, pollution topped the agenda. The man leading the UN’s quest to clean up the planet hopes this meeting will act as the wake-up call countries need and that the fight will include the world of business.

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