You can recycle unlabelled plastic


Brussels, 16 January 2018

COM (2018) 28 final


A European strategy for plastics in the circular economy

{SWD (2018) 16 final}

1 Introduction

Plastics are important and widespread materials in business and in everyday life. They have a variety of functions that contribute to overcoming a range of societal challenges. Lightweight and innovative materials in passenger cars or airplanes enable fuel savings and lower CO2 emissions. High-quality insulation materials help to save energy costs. Plastics in packaging help protect food from spoilage and reduce food waste. Combined with 3-D printing, biocompatible plastic materials can save lives by enabling medical innovations.

However, the way in which plastics are currently manufactured, used and disposed of all too often fails to take advantage of the economic benefits of a more "circular" economy and is environmentally harmful. The environmental problems currently caused by the production, use and consumption of plastics must urgently be counteracted. One of the clearest and most alarming symptoms of these problems is the millions of tons of plastic waste ending up in the oceans each year, creating growing public concern.

New ways of thinking and improving the functioning of such a complex value chain require efforts and increased cooperation from all key players - from plastics manufacturers to recycling companies, retailers and consumers. In addition, innovation and a shared vision of the future are required to steer investments in the right direction. The plastics industry is vital to the European economy and improving its sustainability can create new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and job creation, in line with the objectives of the EU’s new industrial policy strategy1.

In December 2015, the Commission adopted an EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy.2 In it it identified plastics as a key priority area and committed itself to developing a strategy “to address the problems posed by plastics along the entire value chain and taking into account their entire life cycle ". In 2017, the Commission reiterated that it would focus on the manufacture and use of plastics and work towards making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030

The EU is well positioned to lead the transition to plastics of the future. The present strategy lays the foundations for a new plastics economy in which the requirements for reuse, repair and recycling are fully taken into account in the design and manufacture of plastics and plastic products and in which more sustainable materials are developed and promoted. This will enable greater added value and prosperity in Europe and encourage innovation. It also reduces plastic pollution and its harmful effects on our lives and the environment. With these goals, the strategy also contributes to realizing the priority set by the current Commission of an Energy Union with a modern, low-carbon, resource and energy efficient economy and makes a concrete contribution to the achievement of the sustainability goals for 2030 and the goals of the Paris Agreement .

The strategy contains key commitments for action at EU level. However, the private sector as well as national and regional authorities, cities and citizens must also act. International action is also required to achieve change beyond the borders of Europe. With determined, concerted efforts, Europe can turn challenges into opportunities and set an example of decisive action on a global scale.

2. Plastics today: key challenges

The importance of plastics in our economy has increased steadily over the past 50 years. Plastic production worldwide has increased twentyfold since the 1960s and reached 322 million t in 2015. A further doubling can be expected in the next 20 years.

The EU plastics sector employs 1.5 million people4 and had a turnover of EUR 340 billion in 2015. While plastic production in the EU has remained stable in recent years, the EU's share of the world market is declining as production in other parts of the world increases.

In the EU, the potential for recycling plastic waste remains largely untapped. The reuse and recycling rates of old plastics are very low, especially when compared to other materials such as paper, glass or metal.

In Europe, around 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year.5 Less than 30% of this waste is collected for recycling. A significant part of this is moved outside the EU6 for treatment in third countries, which may have different environmental standards.

At the same time, landfill and incineration rates of plastic waste remain high at 31% and 39%, respectively, and while landfilling has decreased over the past decade, incineration has increased. It is estimated that the economy loses 95% of the value of plastic packaging materials (EUR 70-105 billion annually) after a very short cycle of first use

The demand for recycled plastics currently only accounts for around 6% of the plastic demand in Europe. In recent years, the EU recycling industry has struggled due to low raw material prices and uncertain outlets in the market, and little investment has been made in new plastics recycling capacities due to the poor profit outlook for the industry.

It is estimated that the production of plastics and the incineration of plastic waste generate around 400 million tonnes of CO2 annually around the world.8 The increased use of recycled plastics can reduce dependence on fossil fuels for plastics production and reduce CO2 emissions.9 According to estimates10 By recycling all plastic waste worldwide, annual energy savings equivalent to 3.5 billion barrels of oil could be achieved.

Alternative types of feedstock (e.g. bioplastics or plastics made from carbon dioxide or methane) with the same functionalities as conventional plastics and with a potentially lower environmental impact are also being developed, but they currently have a very small market share. Increasing the spread of alternatives that have been proven to be more sustainable can also help reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Very large amounts of plastic waste enter the environment from land and sea sources and cause considerable economic and ecological damage. Worldwide, 5 to 13 million tonnes of plastics (1.5 to 4% of global plastics production) end up in the sea every year.11 The share of plastics in marine litter is estimated at over 80%. Plastic particles are then transported by the ocean currents over sometimes very long distances. They can wash ashore12, disintegrate into microplastics, or form carpets of waste caught in ocean eddies. According to UNEP estimates, damage to the marine environment worldwide amounts to at least USD 8 billion per year.

In the EU, 150,000 to 500,000 t13 of plastic waste ends up in the sea every year. This is only a small fraction of the world's marine litter. However, plastic waste from European sources ends up in particularly sensitive marine areas such as the Mediterranean Sea and parts of the Arctic Ocean. According to the latest studies, plastics accumulate in the Mediterranean at a density equivalent to that in areas with the highest accumulation of plastics in the sea. The environmental impact of plastics also affects areas in the exclusive economic zone of Europe (outermost regions in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Atlantic and Pacific). In addition to environmental damage, marine litter also causes economic damage in activities such as tourism, fishing and shipping. For example, the cost of fishing in the EU from waste has been estimated at around 1% of the total revenue from catches of the EU fleet.14

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the annual increase in the amount of plastic waste and is also due to the increasing consumption of “single-use plastics”, i. H. Packaging and other consumer goods that are disposed of after only a short period of use, rarely recycled and often carelessly thrown away. These include small packaging, bags, disposable cups, lids, straws and cutlery, which are largely made of plastic due to their low weight, low cost and practical properties.

New sources of plastic pollution are also gaining in importance and pose further potential threats to the environment and human health. H. smallest plastic fragments less than 5 mm, accumulated in the sea, where it is easily ingested by marine life due to its small size. It can also get into the food chain. In the latest studies, microplastics have been found in the air, in drinking water and in foods such as salt and honey - with previously unknown effects on human health.

In total, an estimated 75,000 to 300,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the environment each year in the EU.15 A large amount of microplastics is produced by the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic waste, but significant amounts also end up directly in the environment, making them more difficult to detect and let prevent.

In addition, the increasing market shares of biodegradable plastics bring new opportunities, but also risks. Without clear labeling or labeling for consumers, and without proper waste collection and treatment, this increase could exacerbate the environmental impact of plastic spills and make mechanical recycling more difficult. On the other hand, biodegradable plastics can certainly play a role in some applications and the innovative efforts in this area are welcomed.

As plastics value chains become increasingly cross-border in nature, problems and opportunities related to plastics should be considered in the context of international developments, including China's recent decision to ban imports of certain types of plastic waste. Awareness of the global nature of these challenges is growing, as shown by international initiatives on marine litter (e.g. the United Nations' Global Partnership on Marine Litter16 and the G7 and G2017 action plans). At the international conference “Our Ocean” organized by the EU in October 2017, plastic pollution was highlighted as one of the greatest nuisances for healthy seas. In December 2017, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution on marine litter and microplastics

3. Converting challenges into opportunities: the future of a circular plastics industry

The swift transition to a more prosperous and sustainable plastics economy could bring significant benefits. In order to take advantage of this, Europe needs a strategic vision of how a “circular” plastics industry could look in the coming decades. In any case, investments in innovative solutions should be encouraged and today's challenges turned into opportunities. The EU will propose concrete measures for this vision of the future, but for its realization all players in the plastics value chain - from production and design to brands and retail to recycling - must take action. Civil society, academia, business and local authorities also need to play a central role in working with regional and national governments to create positive change.

"Future vision of a new plastics industry for Europe"

A smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry that is designed and manufactured to take full account of reuse, repair and recycling needs creates growth and jobs in Europe and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the EU and reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels.

- When designing plastics and products containing plastics, attention is paid to longer durability, better reusability and the possibility of high-quality recycling. By 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the EU market will be reusable or can be cost-effectively recycled.

- Changes in manufacturing and design enable higher plastic recycling rates for all major applications. By 2030, more than half of the plastic waste generated in Europe will be recycled. With the separate collection of plastic waste, very high rates are achieved. Plastic packaging waste is recycled to the same extent as other packaging materials.

- The recycling capacities for plastics in the EU have been significantly expanded and modernized. By 2030, separation and recycling capacities will have quadrupled compared to 2015, creating 200,000 new jobs across Europe. 19

- Better waste separation and investment in innovation, skills and capacity building have resulted in the phasing out of poorly sorted plastic waste exports. Recycled plastics have become an increasingly valuable feedstock for industries in the EU and third countries.

- The plastics value chain is much more integrated. The chemical industry works closely with plastic recycling companies to help them find broader, higher quality uses for their products. Substances that make recycling difficult have been replaced or their use has been phased out.

−The market for recycled and innovative plastics is successfully established and has clear growth prospects, as more and more products contain a certain proportion of recycled material. The demand for recycled plastics in Europe has quadrupled. It provides a stable source of income for the recycling industry and job security for its growing workforce.

- The increased recycling of plastics will reduce Europe's dependence on imported fossil fuels and reduce CO2 emissions in line with commitments under the Paris Agreement.

- Innovative materials and alternative feedstocks are developed and used for the production of plastics, provided that these are proven to be more sustainable than non-renewable alternatives. This supports the decarbonization efforts and opens up additional growth opportunities.

−Europe reaffirms its leadership position in separation and recycling devices and technologies. Exports are increasing with global demand for more sustainable forms of processing waste plastics.

In Europe, citizens, government and business support more sustainable and safer consumption and production patterns for plastic. This prepares the ground for social innovation and entrepreneurship and opens up a wealth of opportunities for all Europeans.

- The generation of plastic waste is decoupled from growth. Citizens know that waste needs to be avoided and make their decisions accordingly. Consumers, as key players, have an incentive, are aware of the key benefits and are thus able to actively contribute to the transition. Better design, new business models and innovative products promote more sustainable consumption patterns.

−Many entrepreneurs recognize the need for more determined action to prevent plastic waste as a business opportunity. Increasingly, new companies are emerging that offer circular solutions (e.g. return logistics for packaging or alternatives to single-use plastics) and benefit from digitization.

- The amount of plastic entering the environment is falling sharply.Effective waste collection systems combined with a decrease in waste generation and heightened consumer awareness will prevent littering and ensure the proper treatment of waste. Litter in the ocean from ocean-side sources such as ships, fisheries and aquaculture is decreasing significantly. Cleaner beaches and seas encourage activities such as tourism and fishing and help conserve fragile ecosystems. All major European cities are much cleaner.

- Innovative solutions are being developed to prevent microplastics from entering the sea. The origin and routes of transport of microplastics and their effects on human health are better known. Industry and authorities are working together to prevent microplastics from entering the ocean, air and drinking water, or ending up on our plates.

- The EU is taking a leading role in a global dynamic - with countries engaging and working together to stop plastic discharges into the oceans and addressing plastic waste that has already accumulated. Good practices are widely used, scientific knowledge is improving, citizens are getting involved, and innovators and scientists are developing solutions that can be applied around the world.

4. The next steps: from vision of the future to reality

In order to move closer to this vision, a set of ambitious EU measures is proposed within the framework of this strategy.20 These are presented in line with the principles of better regulation. In particular, any action likely to have a significant socio-economic impact will be accompanied by an impact assessment and, given the importance and need for a concerted effort, the strategy will also identify key actions for national and regional authorities and industry.21

4.1 Improvement of the economic framework and the quality of plastics recycling

Increased recycling of plastics can bring significant environmental and economic benefits. Higher plastic recycling rates comparable to other materials can only be achieved if the way in which plastics and plastic items are designed and manufactured is improved. In addition, stronger cooperation is required across the entire value chain - from industry, plastics manufacturers and processors to public and private waste companies. Specifically, the key players should work together to

−Improve design and innovation to make plastics and plastic products easier to recycle;

- expand and improve the separate collection of plastic waste to ensure high quality feedstock for the recycling industry;

- to expand and modernize separation and recycling capacities in the EU;

- create profitable markets for recycled and renewable plastics.

In the past few months, the Commission has facilitated a cross-sector dialogue and is now calling on the sectors concerned22 to swiftly present a package of ambitious and specific voluntary commitments to support this strategy and its vision of the future for 2030.

To support these developments, the Commission has already proposed new rules on waste management.23 These include clearer obligations for national authorities to step up separate collection, targets to encourage investment in recycling capacity and avoid infrastructural overcapacity for the treatment of mixed waste (e.g. incineration) as well as more harmonized regulations for the application of systems of extended producer responsibility. The Commission has consistently asked the legislative bodies to reach an agreement quickly on these new rules. Once adopted and implemented, this new European legislation should significantly improve the current situation and steer public and private investment in the right direction. However, more and more targeted measures are needed to complement waste legislation and remove barriers specific to the plastics industry.

Recyclable design

Currently, there is little or no incentive for manufacturers of plastic items and packaging to take into account recycling or reuse requirements in the design of their products. Plastics are made from various polymers and are highly customized - with special additives that meet the functional and / or aesthetic requirements of each manufacturer. This diversity can make recycling more difficult and costly, and reduce the quality and value of the recycled plastic. Certain design decisions, sometimes based on marketing considerations (e.g. using very dark colors), can also negatively affect the value of recycled materials.

Plastic packaging is a priority when it comes to recycling-friendly design. This packaging currently accounts for around 60% of all plastic waste24 in the EU, and product design is one of the tools to improve recycling rates. It has been calculated that improvements in design could cut the cost of recycling plastic packaging waste in half.25

In 2015 the Commission already proposed that by 2025 at least 55% of all plastic packaging in the EU should be recycled. If more high quality recycling is to be achieved, design problems need to be approached much more systematically.

Action at EU level is essential to promote better design while maintaining the single market. The Commission will review the essential requirements for placing packaging on the EU market26. The aim is to ensure that by 2030 all plastic packaging placed on the EU market can be reused or easily recycled27. In this context, the Commission will also examine how the effect of the new rules on extended producer responsibility can be maximized and support the development of economic incentives to reward particularly sustainable design decisions. It will also look into the possibility of setting a new recycling target for plastic packaging, similar to those presented in 2015 for other packaging materials.

The construction, automotive, furniture and electronics industries also use plastics extensively, making them important sources of plastic waste that could be recycled. In these application areas, the lack of information on the possible presence of chemicals of concern (e.g. flame retardants) is a major obstacle to higher recycling rates. In the context of the interface between chemicals, product and waste policy, the Commission proposes that the work to identify ways for easier detection of chemicals in recycling streams. The aim is to ensure that these substances can be processed or disposed of more easily during recycling in order to ensure a high level of health and environmental protection.

The Commission will also, where appropriate, under the Ecodesign Directive, continue to develop product requirements that take into account circular economy aspects, including recyclability.28 This will facilitate the recycling of plastics in a wide range of electrical and electronic equipment. The Commission has already proposed mandatory requirements for product design and labeling to make electronic displays (e.g. flat panel computers or televisions) easier and safer to dismantle, reuse and recycle. In addition, within the framework of the criteria for the eco-label and green public procurement, it has developed criteria to improve the recyclability of plastics (e.g. labeling of large plastic parts to facilitate sorting, recycling-friendly design of plastic packaging, dismantling-friendly design of components in furniture and computers ).

Boosting demand for recycled plastics

The weak demand for recycled plastics is another major barrier to reshaping the plastics value chain. In the EU, recycled plastics are used to a limited extent in new products, and often only for low-value or niche applications. Uncertainties about outlets and profitability are holding back investments that would be needed to increase and upgrade plastics recycling capacity in the EU and to stimulate innovation. Recent developments in international trade restricting key export routes for waste collected for recycling29 make the creation of a European market for recycled plastics all the more urgent.

One of the reasons for the low use of recycled plastics is the concerns of many brand manufacturers and producers who feared that recycled plastics will not provide the required reliable, large-volume supply of materials with consistent quality properties. Plastics are often recycled in small and mostly regional plants. Large-scale, more standardized recycling would make the market easier to operate. Against this background, the Commission wants to work with the European Committee for Standardization and industry to develop quality standards for separated plastic waste and recycled plastics.

A stronger integration of recycling into the plastics value chain is of central importance and could be facilitated by plastics manufacturers in the chemical industry. Their experience and technological expertise could help achieve higher quality standards (e.g. for food-grade applications) and bundle the range of recycled input materials.

The chemical makeup of recycled plastics and their suitability for their intended uses can also be an obstacle in certain cases. Accidental contamination30 or lack of information about the possible presence of chemicals of concern is a problem with various flows of plastic waste. These uncertainties can also limit the demand for recycled plastics for a number of new products with special safety requirements. The Commission's work on the interface between chemicals, waste and product policies aims to address some of these problems and will therefore contribute directly to the increased use of recycled plastics. The EU will also fund research and innovation projects to better identify contaminants and decontaminate plastic waste under Horizon 2020.

With regard to the use of recycled plastics that come into contact with food (e.g. beverage bottles), the goal is to prioritize high food safety standards while at the same time creating a clear and reliable framework for investments and innovations in circular solutions. Against this background, the Commission wants to quickly complete the approval procedures for over a hundred safe recycling processes. In cooperation with the European Food Safety Agency, the Commission will also consider whether the safe use of other recycled plastic materials31 could be considered (e.g. through better characterization of contaminants).

However, quantities and quality alone are not a sufficient explanation for the currently low market share of recycled plastics. Resistance to change among product manufacturers and a lack of awareness of the added benefits of closed-system plastics have also become obstacles to greater use of recycled content.

Europe has examples of successful commercial partnerships between manufacturers and plastics recyclers (e.g. in the automotive industry) that show that quantitative and qualitative problems can be solved if the necessary investments are made. To help remove these barriers and before considering regulatory action, the Commission is launching an EU-wide commitment campaign to ensure that 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics are used in new products on the EU market by 2025. In order to quickly achieve concrete results, this initiative is aimed at private and public actors who are called upon to make substantial voluntary commitments by June 2018. Details can be found in Appendix III.

To further promote the uptake of recycled plastics, the Commission will also examine more targeted sector-specific measures. For example, certain applications in the construction and automotive industries have great potential for the use of recycled materials32 (e.g. insulation materials, cables, outdoor furniture or dashboards). As part of the ongoing and upcoming evaluations of EU rules for construction products and end-of-life vehicles, the Commission will examine how this can be promoted in detail. As part of the future work on the directive on packaging and packaging waste, consideration will also be given to the use of economic instruments to provide incentives for the use of recycled materials in the packaging industry. Finally, the Commission will work to include the use of recycled content in the criteria for green public procurement.

National governments can also do a lot through economic incentives and public procurement. The French “ORPLAST” 33 system or the new Italian public procurement rules are two good examples of what could be done at national level. Similarly, local authorities can support the goal of the strategy in the procurement of goods, work or services.

Better and more harmonized separate collection and sorting

A stronger and better recycling of plastics is also hindered by the fact that the quantity and quality of the separately collected and sorted waste is insufficient. The quality aspect is also important so that no contaminants enter the recycling stream and high safety standards for recycled materials are maintained. National, regional and local authorities have an important role to play in working with waste companies in raising public awareness and ensuring high quality segregated collection. With the funds generated through the extended producer responsibility systems, these efforts can be significantly increased. Deposit systems can also help achieve very high recycling rates.

By reducing the fragmentation and disparities in the collection and sorting systems, the economics of plastics recycling could be significantly improved and savings of around € 100 per tonne collected could be achieved.34 To promote more standardized and more effective processes in the EU, the Commission is issuing new guidelines for the separate collection and sorting of waste. In addition, and more importantly, the Commission strongly supports the European Parliament and the Council in their current efforts to amend the waste legislation to ensure better implementation of the existing separate collection obligations.

4.2 Reduce plastic waste and littering

The increasing amount of plastic waste and its entry into the environment must be counteracted if a truly circular life cycle for plastics is to be achieved. Littering and discharges of plastic waste currently affect the environment, cause economic damage in areas such as tourism, fishing and shipping, and can have negative effects on human health through the food chain.

Avoiding plastic waste in the environment

The increasing use of plastics for a wide range of short-lived applications results in large amounts of plastic waste. Single-use plastic items are a major source of plastic spill into the environment as they can be difficult to recycle, often used on the go, and carelessly discarded. They are one of the items most commonly found on beaches and make up an estimated 50% of all marine litter. 35

The increasing consumption of food and beverages “on the go” encourages the use of single-use plastics, so the problem is likely to worsen.If waste management is not optimal, even plastic waste that has been collected can end up in the environment. Increasing the recycling of plastics used in agriculture (e.g. mulch film or plastic greenhouses) can help reduce emissions into the environment. In this regard, extended producer responsibility systems have proven effective in several countries.

Marine litter from seaside sources is also of concern. Fishing gear left at sea can be particularly damaging as it can trap marine life.

Curbing plastic waste and littering is a complex undertaking given the diffuse nature of the problem and its relationship to societal trends and individual behavior. There are no clear incentives for consumers and manufacturers to move to solutions that would result in less waste or litter.

The EU has already taken action and has committed member states to take action to reduce the use of plastic carrier bags36 and to monitor and reduce marine litter37. EU funding is also used to identify and combat the growth of marine litter38 and to support global, national and regional action. EU rules promoting higher recycling rates and better waste collection systems also play an important role in preventing spills. With the upcoming legislative proposal to revise the Drinking Water Directive, the Commission will also promote access to drinking water for the EU population and thus reduce the need for packaging for bottled water. The criteria for the eco-label and green public procurement also promote reusable items and packaging. 39

Additional measures can be developed at EU and national level to reduce the unnecessary generation of plastic waste (in particular waste from single-use items or redundant packaging) and to encourage the reuse of packaging. Investigations, including a public consultation, have already been launched to define the scope of an EU-level legislative initiative on single-use plastics that the current Commission intends to bring forward following the approach used for lightweight plastic carrier bags. It will also examine findings from the behavioral sciences.40 The Commission will also examine the possibility of introducing tax measures at EU level.41 Finally, in the context of the future revision of the basic rules for packaging, the Commission will also deal with the issue of "superfluous packaging" deal.

Measures to curb plastic litter can also be financed through national systems of extended manufacturer responsibility. Targeted deposit systems can help reduce littering and promote recycling and have already enabled high collection rates for beverage containers in several countries. 42

The authorities can set up awareness-raising campaigns, litter prevention measures and beach cleaning projects from EU funds, e.g. B. through the European Solidarity Corps, can be supported. On 30 May 2017, the Commission presented a proposal to expand and strengthen the European Solidarity Corps (budget for the period 2018-2020 of EUR 341.5 million) .43 This means that young people across the EU will still be have more opportunity to get involved and support the goals of this strategy.

In order to reduce the dumping of waste by ships, the Commission is putting forward a legislative proposal for port reception facilities together with this strategy. 44. The proposal includes measures to ensure that waste generated on ships or collected at sea is landed and properly managed. Following on from this, the Commission will also develop targeted measures to reduce the amount of fishing gear lost or abandoned at sea. Possible options to be examined include: Deposit systems, systems of extended manufacturer responsibility and recycling targets. In addition, the Commission will continue to study the contribution of aquaculture to marine litter and consider a number of measures to minimize plastic inputs from aquaculture.45 Finally, it will continue to work towards a better understanding and measurement of marine litter - one important but often neglected possibility of supporting effective prevention and rescue measures.

In addition to these preventive measures, EU funds support measures to salvage some of the plastic floating in the seas, as well as innovative salvage technologies.4647 Finally, as explained in Section 4.4, measures at international level are still indispensable in order to address the most important sources of plastic waste in the sea (inadequate infrastructures for waste management in developing and emerging countries).

Creation of a clear legal framework for biodegradable plastics

In view of the large amounts of plastic entering the environment and their harmful effects, solutions were sought to develop biodegradable and compostable plastics. Targeted applications such as the use of compostable plastic bags for separate collection of organic waste have produced positive results. For specific applications, standards are also available or are currently being developed.

Most of the currently available plastics labeled “biodegradable”, however, are generally degraded under very specific conditions that are not always readily found in the natural environment, so that ecosystems can also be damaged in this case. Biodegradation in the marine environment is particularly difficult. In addition, plastics marked as “compostable” are not necessarily suitable for composting in private households. If compostable and conventional plastics are mixed in the recycling process, this can impair the quality of the recyclates. For consumer applications, a well-functioning system for the separate collection of organic waste is essential.

Consumers must be given clear and accurate information and care must be taken to ensure that biodegradable plastics are not touted as the solution to the litter problem. This can be achieved by clearly regulating which plastics can be labeled as “compostable” or “biodegradable” and how they are to be handled after use. Applications with clear environmental benefits should be identified, for which the Commission will then consider measures to stimulate innovation and steer market developments in the right direction. To enable proper segregation and prevent false environmental claims, the Commission will propose harmonized rules for the definition and labeling of compostable and biodegradable plastics. In addition, she will prepare a life cycle analysis to determine the conditions under which the use of biodegradable or compostable plastics is advantageous and define the criteria for such applications.

For some alternative, supposedly biodegradable materials such as B. "oxo-degradable plastics" it was finally found that these have no proven ecological advantages over conventional plastics, while their rapid disintegration into microplastics is questionable. The Commission has started working on measures to limit the use of oxo-degradable plastics in the EU. 48

The increasing problem of microplastics

Microplastics are intentionally added to products of certain categories (e.g. cosmetics, detergents, paints, etc.), are dispersed during the production, transport and use of plastic granules or are created by the wear and tear of products such as tires, paints and synthetic clothing.

Microplastics deliberately added to products make up a relatively small fraction of all microplastics in the ocean. However, as it is relatively easy to avoid, several countries have already taken action to limit its use in response to public concerns49, while the cosmetics industry has also taken voluntary action. Bans are being considered or planned in several Member States, which could lead to the fragmentation of the internal market. In line with the REACH procedures for the restriction of substances that pose a risk to the environment or health, the Commission has therefore started the procedure to restrict the use of intentionally added microplastics and asked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to provide the scientific basis for regulatory measures at EU level. 50

Further research is needed to better understand the sources and effects of microplastics (including their environmental and health effects) and to develop innovative solutions to prevent their spread (see Section 4.3). This can also include opportunities for better separation of microplastics in wastewater treatment plants, as well as targeted measures for each source. As part of a cross-industry agreement51 to avoid the release of microplastics into the water environment during the washing of synthetic textiles, the first proposals for test methods are to be drawn up in 2018. For its part, the Commission will examine measures such as the labeling of tires and the establishment of specific tire requirements, better information on the release of microfibers from textiles and corresponding minimum requirements, as well as measures to reduce the loss of plastic granules. Where appropriate, extended producer responsibility schemes may also be considered to cover the cost of remedial action. Microplastics also need to be monitored in drinking water, where their effects on human health are still unknown.

4.3 Mobilizing innovation and investment for circular solutions

Significant investments in infrastructure and innovation are required to achieve the objectives of this strategy. Additional investments of an estimated EUR 8.4 to 16.6 billion are required just to achieve ambitious plastic recycling targets.52 The creation of a favorable framework for investment and innovation is therefore of central importance for the implementation of this strategy.

Innovation is a prerequisite for transforming the plastics value chain: it can help reduce the cost of existing solutions, provide new solutions and enhance potential benefits beyond Europe's borders. While the EU can lay the groundwork, European companies need to invest in the future and reaffirm their leadership role in modernizing the plastics value chain.

A powerful impact can be achieved with innovative solutions for advanced separation, chemical recycling and improved polymer design. The large-scale use of new technical solutions (e.g. digital watermarks) could enable significantly better separation and traceability of materials, with low retrofitting costs. Research and innovation can also play a key role in preventing plastic waste and pollution from microplastics. The Commission is particularly interested in innovative materials that are fully biodegradable in sea and fresh water and that do not harm the environment or ecosystems. New concepts - development of innovative business models, return logistics or sustainability-oriented design - can make a significant contribution to minimizing plastic waste at the source, and at the same time bring further economic, ecological and social advantages with them. Finally, more scientific research is needed to determine the potential health effects of microplastics and to develop better monitoring tools.

Furthermore, alternative feedstocks, including bio-based raw materials and gaseous discharges (e.g. carbon dioxide or methane) can be developed in order to avoid the use of fossil resources. These feedstocks currently have a small but growing market share.53 Their costs may prevent them from becoming more widespread; In the case of bio-based plastics, it must also be ensured that they have real environmental advantages over non-renewable alternatives. To this end, the Commission has started to better understand the life cycle impact of alternative feedstocks used in plastics production, including biomass. On the basis of the available scientific evidence, the Commission will examine how the development of alternative feedstocks in plastics production can be promoted.

All of these efforts are supported with EU research funding. To date, more than EUR 250 million from Horizon 2020 has funded R&D in areas of direct relevance to the strategy. Around half of this was used to develop alternative feedstocks. This has been complemented by support from EU cohesion policy (smart specialization strategies) .54 Many of these strategies include innovation priorities relevant to plastics.

An additional € 100 million will be made available by 2020 to fund priority measures such as developing smarter and easier-to-recycle plastic materials, more efficient recycling processes, and the detection and removal of hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics. Finally, the Commission will develop a Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda for Plastics, which will provide guidance on future funding for research and innovation beyond 2020.

In order to achieve the objectives of this strategy, significantly more private and public investments - and not just in innovation - must be made. Private investments in separation and recycling plants are currently being held back by uncertainties about profitability (low oil prices, lack of sales opportunities, etc.). Currently, only about two thirds of the plastics recycling companies in France are profitable.55 As the situation in other EU countries shows56, the modernization and expansion of recycling companies are a prerequisite for economically viable plastics recycling. Many of the measures proposed in Section 4.1 are specifically designed to increase investor confidence.

The authorities need to invest in a more comprehensive and better separate collection. Well-designed systems of extended producer responsibility can make a decisive contribution to providing the necessary resources. In some countries with very high recycling rates, for example, the costs of separate collection and treatment of packaging waste are largely financed by contributions from manufacturers.

In addition to serving as a source of funding, extended producer responsibility schemes can provide economic incentives for companies to develop more sustainable plastic products. Well-designed and implemented systems of extended producer responsibility across Europe could help to promote the efficiency of recycling processes, provide incentives for recycling-friendly design, reduce the amount of waste and litter and promote a more intensive dialogue between manufacturers, local authorities and recycling companies. In its proposal to review waste legislation, the Commission aims to promote this model and make it more efficient by setting common minimum requirements based on existing best practices. In order to ensure the smooth functioning of extended producer responsibility systems and to encourage investment in recycling, the Commission will provide guidance on how to effectively modulate the contributions made by manufacturers (especially for packaging). For example, the "eco-modulation" of these contributions only lead to results if a more sustainable product design is appropriately financially rewarded.

The extended producer responsibility principle could possibly also be used to set up a private fund to finance investments in innovative solutions and new technologies with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of the production of primary plastics. This could, for example, encourage the use of recycled plastics.By mid-2019, the Commission will work with stakeholders to examine the potential design of such a fund (including in terms of technology and material neutrality and complementarity with existing instruments) and to thoroughly examine its technical, economic and legal feasibility.

Member States' practices on taxation and public procurement will also play an important role in promoting transition and steering investment.57 In its proposal to review waste legislation, the Commission highlighted the importance of using economic instruments to prioritize waste prevention and recycling highlighted at national level. Internalising the environmental costs of landfilling and incineration of waste through high or progressive taxes or contributions could improve the economics of plastics recycling.

The European Structural and Investment Funds, and in particular the cohesion policy funds, can make a significant contribution to the development of recycling capacities in the EU (including plastics recycling). Between 2014 and 2020, over EUR 5.5 billion was made available for improving waste management. In particular, this should lead to an increase in waste recycling capacity of 5.8 million tonnes per year.58 The European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) can also play an important role, e.g. B. by promoting a stronger integration of the value chain as well as projects for plastic recycling in a closed cycle. The recently launched “Circular Economy Financial Support Platform” will help raise investor awareness and facilitate access to funding for circular economy projects.

4.4 Support for action at global level

The opportunities and challenges associated with plastics are increasingly global, and how they are handled properly will make a significant contribution to the achievement of the 2030 sustainability goals. Per capita plastic consumption is growing rapidly outside of Europe, particularly in Asia.59 Plastic value chains span entire contingents, and there is international trade in plastic waste. Around half of the plastic waste collected in the EU is sent to third countries without it being clear how it will be dealt with there. More than 85% of exported plastic waste currently goes to China.60 Due to China's ban on imports of certain types of plastic waste61, this is about to change, creating opportunities for recycling companies in the EU.

Appropriate systems for the prevention, collection and recycling of waste are needed in many parts of the world. Marine litter from one country can end up on the beaches of another, and plastic fragments from all parts of the world are carried on by the ocean currents and over time form garbage carpets in the seas and oceans. This problem can only be countered through international cooperation. The seas are a global good and common heritage, and if the current trend is not reversed, it could become a legacy for future generations due to the degradation of marine ecosystems and the threats to human health. To ensure that plastics do not end up in the sea, efficient waste prevention and management systems must be created, especially in emerging countries. Numerous initiatives have been launched in international forums (e.g. G7 and G20, United Nations and MARPOL Conventions62) and within the framework of regional marine conventions. Measures against littering the oceans are also included in the agenda for responsible use of the world's oceans63.

The EU will continue to support international action, promote best practices around the world and use its external funding instruments to promote better waste prevention and management around the world. In particular, the Commission will continue to make use of the policy dialogues on the environment and industry, as well as the dialogues under free trade agreements, and will be actively involved in regional maritime agreements.64 In addition, it will actively participate in the working group established by the United Nations Environment Assembly in December 2017 to raise international Develop measures to combat the littering of the oceans by plastics and microplastics. In 2018, the Commission will launch a specific project to reduce plastic and marine litter in East and Southeast Asia, where the problem is growing rapidly.65 It will also examine how plastic pollution is affecting the Mediterranean (in support of the Barcelona Agreement). and large river basins (a large part of plastic waste is carried by rivers before it reaches the sea) can be reduced. Finally, the Commission will enhance cooperation between the outermost regions of the EU66 and their neighbors in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Facilitate the Pacific and Atlantic in various areas, including waste management and recycling.

Looking ahead, there are also significant opportunities for the development of an innovative circular plastics industry around the world. The EU already has the highest plastic recycling rate in the world. With its goals to improve the recyclability of packaging and higher recycling rates, it is well positioned to be a significant driving force behind new developments, particularly by encouraging investment in advanced recycling technologies, new materials that are easier to recycle and solutions to curb marine litter .

Measures are needed to strengthen the trust of market participants and authorities in order to better integrate plastics recycling worldwide and thus create a circular value chain across borders. For example, the Commission will encourage the development of international standards to increase industry confidence in the quality of recyclable or recycled plastics. It is also important to ensure that plastics sent to third countries for recycling are treated and processed in accordance with the rules on shipments of waste67 under conditions comparable to those in the EU. Waste management activities under the Basel Convention need to be supported and an EU certification system for recycling facilities should be developed. A global industry initiative is also needed to encourage the widespread use of recyclable and recycled plastics.

5. Conclusion

The challenges related to the production, consumption and disposal of plastics can become an opportunity for the EU and the competitiveness of European industry. Mastering them with the help of an ambitious vision of the future that encompasses the entire value chain can lead to growth, employment and innovation. It can also reaffirm European leadership in global solutions, facilitate the transition to a low carbon, circular economy and provide citizens with a cleaner and safer environment.

The present strategy provides for specific measures, thanks to which the future picture of a more circular plastics industry is to become a reality. The Commission will focus on making decisive progress within its current mandate while laying the groundwork for longer term action. It is important, however, that other central actors also do their part. The Commission therefore invites the European Parliament and the Council to endorse this strategy and its objectives and calls on national and regional authorities, cities, the entire plastics value chain and all relevant stakeholders to commit themselves to decisive and concrete action.


COM (2017) 479.


COM (2015) 614.


Commission Work Program 2018 - COM (2017) 650.


Raw material producers and product manufacturers.


Source: Plastics Europe.


Source: Eurostat.


Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The new plastics economy, 2016 (


Ibid. The information relates to the year 2012.


It is estimated that recycling one tonne of plastic saves around 2 t of CO2 (see ). Recycling 15 million tonnes of plastic annually by 2030 (around half of the projected plastic waste generation) would save CO2 emissions equivalent to a 15 million reduction in the number of vehicles on the road.


A. Rahimi, J. M. García, Chemical recycling of waste plastics for new materials production, Nat. Chem. Rev. 1, 0046, 2017.


Jambeck et al, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science, February 2015.


Including uninhabited areas, see e.g. B.



Joint Research Center, Harm Caused by Marine Litter, 2016.


Source: Eunomia.


(17) 2015-06-08-g7-abschluss-eng_en.html and G20 /2017-g20-marine-litter-en.html?nn=2186554


UNEP / EA.3 / L.20 see:


This corresponds to around 500 new separation and recycling systems (source: Plastics Recyclers Europe).


All EU measures are listed in Annex I.


These are listed in Appendix II.


Plastics Europe, the Association of European Plastics Processors (EuPC) and Plastics Recyclers Europe were involved in this dialogue.


COM (2015) 593, COM (2015) 594, COM (2015) 595, COM (2015) 596.


Source: Plastics Europe.


Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing action, January 2017.


Directive 94/62 / EC on packaging and packaging waste.


d. H. cost efficient.


Directive 2009/125 / EC; this guideline applies to all energy-related products.


In particular, China's recently announced decision to ban imports of certain types of plastic waste - see Section 4.4.


Contamination of recycling streams can come from various sources (e.g. contamination, usage phase, improper use, degradation, improper separation of materials, contaminated sites or cross-contamination during waste collection). Such accidental contamination can affect the quality and safety of recyclates.


d. H. plastics other than PET or plastics that do not come from closed applications for reuse.


Unlike other applications such as B. Packaging, aesthetic requirements play a subordinate role, and the health and environmental impact is usually lower. In addition, the European Committee for Standardization has already developed assessment standards to identify hazardous substances that could be contained in recycled materials.