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Plastics are everywhere in our daily life: they are used in packaging, buildings, cars, electronics, agriculture and other sectors. Plastics production is 20 times higher than in 1960s, and is forecast to almost quadruple by 2050. Although there are thousands of types of plastics, 90 % of plastics are derived from virgin fossil fuels. About 6 % of global oil consumption is used to produce plastics; by 2050, this share could reach 20 %.

In Europe, about 40 % of post-consumer plastic waste is incinerated with energy recovery, and the rest is either landfilled or recycled. About half of the plastic waste collected and recycled is treated in the European Union; the other half is exported, mainly to China.

Cheap, durable and versatile, plastics bring us multiple benefits. But these very qualities can also pose problems when plastics end up in the environment, with impacts on nature, the climate and human health. It is estimated that 2 to 5 % of plastics produced end up in oceans. Some of these are microplastics, resulting either from the degradation of larger plastic pieces in the sea or from the release of micro pieces of plastics (for instance from the laundering of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving).

As part of its 'circular economy' package, the European Commission presented in December 2015 an action plan for the circular economy. The action plan presented measures in five priority sectors, among which plastics. In the action plan, the Commission pledged specifically to undertake the following actions:

  • develop a strategy on plastics in the circular economy (by 2017);
  • take specific action to reduce marine litter with a view to implementing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (from 2015 onwards).

On 16 January 2018, the European Commission published a communication laying out a strategy for plastics in a circular economy. The strategy identifies key challenges, including the low reuse and recycling rates of plastic waste, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics production and incineration, and the presence of plastic waste (including microplastics) in oceans. The Commission depicts its 'vision for Europe's new plastics economy', where among other things, all plastic packaging should be designed to be recyclable or reusable by 2030.

To move towards this vision, the strategy presented a wide range of measures focusing on four areas:

  • improving the economics and quality of plastics recycling, for instance by improving product design, boosting recycled content (in particular through quality standards and a pledging campaign), and improving separate collection of plastic waste;
  • curbing plastic waste and littering, for instance by reducing single-use plastics, tackling sources of marine litter at sea, restricting the use of oxo-degradable plastics and curbing micro-plastics pollution;
  • driving investment and innovation in the plastics value chain; and
  • harnessing global action, in particular as regards international trade, multilateral initiatives on plastics, initiatives related with specific world regions and bilateral relations with non-EU countries.

In its resolution of 13 September 2018 on the European strategy for plastics in a circular economy, the European Parliament welcomed the proposal and urged the Commission, among other things, to consider introducing requirements for minimum recycled content for specific plastic products put on the EU market;  to come forward swiftly with quality standards  for recycled plastics in order to build trust and incentivise the market for secondary plastics; to ban intentionally added microplastics  in products as well as oxo-degradable plastics  by 2020; to set minimum requirements in product legislation to significantly reduce the release of micro-plastics at source (in particular for textiles, tyres, paints and cigarette butts); and to fulfil its obligation to review  the essential requirements laid down in the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive  by the end of 2020. The resolution emphasised that although biodegradable and compostable plastics can help support the transition to a circular economy, they cannot be considered a remedy against marine litter or legitimise unnecessary single-use applications.


Further reading:

Author: Didier Bourguignon, Members' Research Service,

Visit the European Parliament homepages on plastic waste and circular economy

As of 20/11/2019.