Plastic waste: A valuable resource

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The upcoming review of EU waste legislation offers the chance to revolutionise the way we think about and deal with plastics waste in Europe, argues Carl Van Camp.

Carl Van Camp is the chairman of the Resource Efficiency Program Council at Plastics Europe and senior vice president of polymers at the petroleum company Total.

Turning waste into a valuable resource should be among the cornerstones of a resource-efficient in Europe. The upcoming review of EU waste management legislation provides the perfect opportunity to address this problem. However, this will require combining ambitious targets with intelligent policy tools and rigorous application of the rules.

The plastics industry shows a clear example of what can be gained if we manage to get this right. The recent European Commission Green Paper on Plastics Waste frames the challenges around end-of-life plastics very accurately, while at the same time highlighting the huge potential of plastics to make a positive contribution to the environment and society as a whole.

A big part of the problem is that in most Member States the systems are not in place to take advantage of the increasing numbers of ways of deriving value from plastics at end-of-life. Instead over two-thirds of European countries send over 50% of their plastics waste to landfill.

In this context, the focus in the Green Paper on the need to divert plastics waste from the landfill is one that we, as an industry, wholeheartedly share. Plastics waste is a valuable resource and its exploitation is the key to tackling a range of other issues from boosting the economics of recycling to reducing marine litter. 

Two years ago, the European plastics industry launched a call for action to achieve zero plastics to landfill by 2020. The experience of the nine EU countries that already recover over 90% of post-consumer plastics waste demonstrates that, while it may be ambitious, this is not an unrealistic goal. The challenge is to put the right economic and political incentives in place in other Member States.

The review of the Landfill Directive in 2014 is a crucial opportunity to introduce a landfill ban or increase taxes to phase-out the landfilling of all recyclable and high-calorific waste – not only plastics – by the end of the decade.

At the same time, banning or phasing out landfill is only one part of the puzzle. We also need to develop clear criteria to determine the most appropriate recovery options for materials diverted from landfill.

There are certain circumstances where recycling plastics, or other materials, simply does not make sense from a sustainability perspective – either because they are too complex to separate from other materials without a disproportionate investment of energy, or because they are contaminated in some way and it is not safe to recycle them.

Energy recovery and recycling should be viewed as complementary rather than competitive options. This is demonstrated in countries such as Germany, Netherlands and Sweden where there is a free capacity for energy recovery but high recycling rates are achieved.

That is why it will be crucial to develop comprehensive sustainability criteria when it comes to options for diverting waste from landfill. As we have seen in the case of the biofuels, the importance of being clear on these criteria from the outset when setting environmental targets.

The results of a thorough sustainability analysis can often seem counter-intuitive. Plastic carrier bags, which are the subject of specific Commission proposals this week, are a classic case in point. Apart from being cost-efficient and convenient, numerous public studies have concluded that, as long as they are re-used, plastic bags have a better overall environmental performance than alternatives.

The big problem as we all know is litter. That is why introducing a charge on plastics bags, and indeed all carrier bags, as a means of raising consumer awareness of their value and discouraging littering, would be a for more sustainable option overall than simply banning them.

Identifying the most effective way of deriving value from the waste we produce is not an easy challenge. However, with the review of EU waste legislation, we have the chance to revolutionise the use of waste as resource – rather than simply burying it under our feet.  

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