Plastics in a circular economy: Opportunities and challenges

Briefing 17-05-2017

Plastics pervade modern life; plastics production has been growing exponentially since the 1960s and is expected to double by 2036. Although there are over 1 000 types of plastic, 90 % of plastics are derived from virgin fossil fuels. In Europe, post-consumer plastic waste is either incinerated with energy recovery (39 %), landfilled (31 %) or recycled (30%). It is estimated that half of the plastic waste recycled is treated in the EU, while the other half is exported for recycling. The production and consumption of plastics today offer a series of benefits (in particular low production costs, durability and versatility) but also pose a number of problems (in particular loss of material value as a result of single use and low recycling rates, as well as ill-effects on nature, climate and human health). Marine litter and microplastics are a source of particular concern. Several pieces of EU legislation apply to plastics and plastic waste, although implementation is incomplete. In 2015, the Commission identified plastics as one of the priority areas of the circular economy action plan, proposed new reuse and recycling targets for plastic packaging waste and pledged to adopt a strategy on plastics in the circular economy by the end of 2017. A circular economy implies reducing waste to a minimum. Moving the plastics value chain in this direction would mean improving recycling, promoting reuse, and redesigning products, while taking into account the whole life-cycle of products. Although this could deliver opportunities (in particular enhanced security of supply, economic benefits and reduced pressure on the environment) there are also challenges (in particular weak economic incentives, technical issues and finance). The European Parliament recognises the need to introduce specific measures on plastic waste in EU legislation and to value plastics as a resource.