Europe needs a strong plastics Directive to live up to the Paris Agreement

Utrecht Community consists of more than 25 organizations that all contribute to integrated sustainability from their own discipline. In this blogpost, one of UCo’s communitymembers shares its’ knowledge and ideas on a specific topic. 

Written by: Recycling Netwerk Benelux

The battle against the plastic soup: are European governments as ambitious as Commission and Parliament?

The European Parliament strongly backed the Commission’s proposal to ban a range of single-use plastics and to ensure that producers will pay the clean up costs. On October 24th, an impressive 91.5% of the Parliament supported the ambition to curb the ocean pollution. The members of parliament listened to the demand of the European citizens to take effective measures against the plastic soup.

However, since the Council has joined the discussion and trilogues – the trilateral negotiation between Commission, Parliament and Council – have started, the process has taken a worrying turn. In the Council, amendments have been put forward that cause confusion and will undermine the intended environmental impact of the Single-Use Plastics Directive. The plastics and packaging industry is heavily lobbying the national governments with the aim to put some loopholes in the Directive.

As an environmental organisation, we appeal to all policy makers and governments to remember that this Single-Use Plastics Directive has been drafted to protect our environment, not businesses. Next to our environment, however, there is another compelling reason why the Directive should be kept at least as ambitious as proposed by the Commission and Parliament. The EU has made preceding environmental commitments which are close to impossible to live up to without a strong Single-Use Plastics Directive.

In this article we list a handful of the international commitments that are in danger of being compromised by a weakened Single-Use Plastics Directive. Then we give some examples of Council amendments that are undermining the strength of the Directive as proposed by the Commission and adopted by Parliament.


Without a strong Directive, these 5 European commitments are doomed to fail

A strong Single-Use Plastics Directive, with EPR kept intact and the 90% separate collection target for bottles by 2025 upheld, is needed to live up to at least 5 earlier environmental agreements to which the EU has committed itself.

  • Already in 2014, the European Commission issued a reduction target for marine litter. By 2020, marine litter has to be reduced by 30% for the ten most common types of litter found on beaches. Now, the Council is suggesting a delay for two key measures of the Single-Use Plastics Directive that can really reduce marine litter substantially: it wants to postpone the 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles with 5 years (until 2030) and the implementation of mandatory EPR with 3 years (until 2024).
  • In the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy (Plastic Strategy), which was adopted in January 2018, the EU commits herself to ensure recyclability of all plastic packaging on the EU market by 2030. Currently, different types of plastic waste are collected together, which results in a mixed, contaminated and thus low quality plastic stream which is difficult to recycle. Reaching this goal is thus inconceivable without separate collection systems that yield pure and high quality streams of plastic. It will become very difficult for the the EU to ensure the recyclability of all plastic packaging by 2030, if already the objective for separate collection for just one item, plastic bottles, threatens to be successfully undermined by industry lobbying. Moreover, recycling costs will inevitably stay steep due to mixed waste streams. By creating better manageable collection systems with as low contamination as possible, recycling will become easier and thus profitable.
  • The EU pledged to reduce consumption of single-use plastics in the same Plastic Strategy. Ultimately, to move to a circular economy, we should move away from single-use items. This Directive is a first step, of course in prohibiting certain single-use plastic items and demanding a consumption reduction in Member States. But one should not forget that EPR has proven to be an important driver in stimulating eco-innovation and eco-design, whilst boosting collection rates, and thus is necessary to move towards such circular models.
  • Finally, in these 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs, 2015), the Member States of the EU committed themselves to “by 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris” (UN SDG 14.1) and to “by 2030, achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources” (UN SDG 12). The first commitment somewhat summarizes the goal of the SUP Directive and therefore obviously calls for an ambitious Directive. Both separate collection and EPR are measures of the SUP Directive that contribute to the efficient use of natural resources in a straightforward and effective manner. These measures will make EU a frontrunner in this area. However, if the EU does not seize the opportunity to implement EPR and an ambitious separate collection target in the SUP Directive, it will create a lock-in situation that will hinder reaching these UN SDGs for many years.


These Council amendments will weaken the Directive

The Directive would become weaker, and unable to live up to these commitments, if some of the Council amendments regarding Extended Producer Responsibility(EPR, Article 8) and the separate collection target for plastic bottles (Article 9) would be adopted. These measures form the backbone of the Directive. Impairing them would impair this legislation to such an extent that it would not contribute to the above mentioned European commitments.


Clinging to ineffective, non-binding agreements with industry

EPR as suggested by the Commission and Parliament obliges producers to pay the clean up costs for litter. By charging producers with the bill, this industry will be motivated to improve their efforts on litter prevention – for example by designing less litter-prone products or setting up more effective collection systems – as this will reduce the clean up costs they have to pay.

Currently, producers of plastic items are not required to take responsibility for their product ending up in litter, but can come up with voluntary actions to address their littered products. Since this voluntary arrangement has not led to the expected results in reducing the plastic soup, the Commission drafted this Directive to systematically tackle the most problematic single-use plastics.

Neither the Commission nor Parliament gave way to pressure from industry lobbyists who are heavily resisting EPR and do not want to pay for the clean up costs.

Under Austrian Presidency, however, the Council suggests delaying setting the target from 2021 to 2024. Moreover, the Council creates unnecessary confusion by tampering with EPR and its workings by proposing the following (Article 17):

Provided that the (…) objectives as set out in (…) Article 8 (EPR) are achieved, Member States may transpose the provisions set out in (…) Article 8 (…) by means of agreements between the competent authorities and the economic sectors concerned”.

This amendment has two possible interpretations that both compromise EPR and its workings. Either the Council does not want to move away from the current situation but gives Member States the chance to maintain the voluntary arrangements as long as objectives are met. Or the Council wants to give Member States the option to replace EPR with voluntary agreements with the industry once the urgently needed results have finally been achieved by means of mandatory EPR.

It just takes one look at the plastic soup to comprehend that either continuing with or returning to letting businesses aim to curb plastic pollution voluntarily will only have further detrimental effects for our environment. It is time for the EU to act decisively and to act now. EPR is an effective instrument to systemically tackle plastic pollution. It should therefore be implemented without alterations and in the short term, to last for the long term.


Committing to 12 years more of plastic bottles’ pollution?

A high separate collection target for plastic bottles keeps these plastic items out of the environment, as it motivates Member States to strive for the most successful collection systems. The 90% separate collection target by 2025 as suggested by Commission and Parliament is achievable both in time as in percentage: the case of Lithuania shows that a return rate exceeding 90% can be achieved in less than two years time.

Whereas Parliament added a 35% recycled content target for new bottles to strengthen the circular approach to plastic bottles, the Council seems to be only mitigating this aim. It suggests a much weaker 75% separate collection target in 2025 and delays the 90% with five more years to 2030. Given the billions of plastic bottles sold every year, that means a huge amount of plastic will continue to pollute our seas.

The Austrian Presidency should acknowledge that there is no rational justification to decrease the target in percentage or to expand the timeline and step up its environmental game. Separate collection of plastic bottles, for example by means of a deposit-return system, will guarantee high-quality recycling and a decrease in plastic pollution.


A strong SUP Directive is necessary to achieve the European goals

In conclusion, Europa has to adopt a strong SUP Directive as proposed by the Commission in order to reach its own environmental objectives. Watering down the SUP Directive would mean that plastic pollution levels will not decrease and, the EU will not be able to respect its international commitments.

When mandatory EPR gets replaced with voluntary agreements, Europe irrevocably gets trapped in the current situation of plastic pollution and huge costs of cleaning up for municipalities and taxpayers.

Delaying the 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles until 2030, means 5 more years of marine pollution, way beyond the deadline set by the UN Sustainable Development Goal. But confirming the 90% target, means yielding a pure and high quality stream of plastics that will facilitate qualitative recycling and make it profitable. It is a great opportunity to create a level playing field, necessary for the transition to a Circular Economy which the EU has envisioned for 2030, and creating great European business opportunities.

The SUP Directive, as drafted by the European Commission and supported by the votes of the European Parliament, corresponds to the environmental and economic ambitions the EU has committed itself to in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. All Member States will need to make a joint effort in order to meet these goals.

Therefore, Recycling Netwerk Benelux strongly calls upon the members of the Council for visionary decisiveness and determination to support the SUP Directive as it is – and not weaken it as to leave Europe with a sea where plastics outnumber fish.

Circular economy needs trust, transparency and traceability

Utrecht Community consists of more than 25 organizations that all contribute to integrated sustainability from their own discipline. In this blogpost, one of UCo’s communitymembers shares its’ knowledge and ideas on a specific topic. 

Written by: Recycling Netwerk Benelux

In order for circular economy to become cost-efficient and economically feasible, the whole value chain will need to invest in smooth collaboration. The key to its success? Trust, transparency and traceability.

The circular transition is in impact comparable to the digital revolution. It requires a change in mindset and intrinsic alteration of DNA to fully reap the benefits of the circular model. Changes – and investments – in eco-design are required to reduce complexity and the use of hazardous substances.

When using end-of-use products as a resource, ensuring transparency and traceability of substances used is a necessity to make the circular model economically viable. Not knowing what is in, means the recycler has to guess how to exactly process the material for it to become a high-quality resource – not to mention taking a blind leap regarding safety. Not knowing makes recycling a very costly and potentially dangerous endeavour.

Take the case of carpets. In Europe, each year 1.6 million tonnes of carpet waste are generated. Only 1 to 3% of which is being recycled, meaning 97 to 99% is either incinerated or landfilled.

Why? Because a separate waste stream is absent and recycling is plainly expensive due to the intransparency and untraceability of substances used and the complexity to get resources out of the product.

The quality of the recyclate decreases due to contamination. Further, its safety cannot be guaranteed when the recycler does not know what substances the producer used to make its products.

Especially with REACH constantly evolving, it becomes increasingly important to also be able to identify and remove hazardous and – certainly – banned substances.

It is not without reason that ACEA and EURIC, respectively associations of European automotive manufacturers and recycling industry, recently panicked when European Parliament proposed a restriction of the concentration limit for the flame retardant DecaBDE.

In order for circular economy to become lean and mean so it can replace the current linear model, secondary resources will need to become more attractive to manufacturers than virgin raw materials. Recyclates will need to have a better price-proposition, offer virgin rate quality and recycled products need to at least comply to REACH.

To obtain economies of scale whilst including these requirements, recyclers will need to be able to identify what can be harvested as secondary resources and how it should be harvested in bulk.

In addition, the less contamination in the incoming stream, the higher the recyclates’ quality. Mechanical recycling has its limits due to degradation caused by contamination and impurities. Luckily developments to chemically recycle move rapidly, allowing for more control over the chemical building bricks and to unlock endless recycling – without quality loss.


Safe to recycle

In circular economy resources are meant to stay in the loop forever and not for just one extra round. Investments and commitments in chemical recycling from big corporates like Unilever, Nestle, DSM and LyondellBasell illustrate where the future lies for high quality recyclates.

So, the question should not be whether it is possible to recycle. It should really be: Is it safe to recycle? And does this solution have the least environmental footprint?

However complicated this all may seem, it is not impossible to realize. Yarn manufacturer Aquafil has successfully managed to close the PA6-loop with Econyl. By performing chemical recycling on fishing nets, post-production and -consumer (carpet face) fiber, the company can reach scale in a safe recyclate of virgin rate quality. The demand for this closed loop product follows naturally; nearly all European carpet manufacturers now offer a product which features Econyl.


Trust + Expertise = Economic Benefit

In a circular model, the identifying and harvesting part of secondary resources is not the sole responsibility of the recycler. When transparency and traceability is offered throughout the value chain, the recycling process will become more efficient as a result.

Intransparency will inevitably make proper processing of end-of-use products more complex and thus more costly, thereby making it hard for the resulting recyclates to compete with virgin raw materials. The easier it will become to recycle, the more probable it becomes for circular economy to take off.

The linear model aims at protecting all information and processes regarding the product within the company. Becoming circular in a linear model is a very costly endeavour, since it will require vast investments to process non-core business activities.

For instance, when keeping the product in a self-organized loop, the producer is the recycler and therefore benefits from knowledge of the ingredients. Take-back systems like the ones developed by carpet manufacturers Desso, Interface and DSM-Niaga – as well as Apple with its iPhones – are an essential part in the machinery of circular economy.

Though, one can question whether it is possible to obtain economy of scale in creating the infrastructure, needed for such private collection system. These costs will be too high for SME’s and leave the burden of reaching the tipping point from linear to circular on the shoulders of big corporations.


A chain of trust

The most challenging aspect of the circular transition might be the need to trust the partners in the value chain. Having a recyclable product is simply not enough.

The essential difference of the circular model opposed to the linear one, is that the return of investment in the circular model is higher when the entire value chain is aligned and efficient.

Depending on each other’s expertise removes the need to invest in material and internalising knowledge which is not core business. By trusting each other’s capabilities, the entire value chain becomes more agile whilst simultaneously becoming more specialized than linear competitors. In essence, it is an altruistic system.

To obtain this way of collaboration, information on substances needs to be shared. But this does not mean you have to spill out all your company’s secrets.

Platforms for material passports like Excess Materials Exchange or even ECHA’s Unique Formula Identifier, which becomes mandatory as of January 2020, offer transparency to the one who holds the key and at the same time protects secret recipes. If well organized, the circular model can be exponentially beneficial.

Europe has been dealt a good hand for circular economy. The paradigm change has already commenced and is clearly visible in the carpet industry with companies like DSM-Niaga, Desso and Interface looking to re-write their DNA in moving towards circularity for years already.

Backed by the political circular ambitions of the European Commission, European member states and China, it is only a matter of time for the circular model to prevail.

Perhaps the egg of Columbus is yet to be found. But we’ll find it faster when looking for it together.3


This article has been published on Chemsec’s website