Lost At Sea – Plastics in the oceans, and how the EU deals with them

Wednesday 31 January 2018

The European Union (EU) alone produces every year around 25,8 million tonnes of plastic waste, 59% of which is packaging. To deal with the issue, the European Commission has unveiled on the 16th of January a “European Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy” [1].


The EU faces a challenge in dealing with large quantities of a type of waste that disperses and does not degrade: 70% of the plastics waste it produces is treated either by incineration or in landfills. This approach is problematic given its impact on the environment and on plastics consumption. Untreated waste can end up in rivers and seas, as the largest urban conglomerates are often located by a water body.

The overall EU waste legislation is very fragmented, and composed rather of a constellation of plans, initiatives and rules adapting to the protean nature of waste: emanates from different principles such as environmental protection, waste management, the single market and circular economy[2]. The “circular economy package” is an effort to update all waste related European legislations at once to tackle societal and environmental challenges and usher into a new form of economy. In this idea, a provisional agreement between the EU institutions on four amended waste related directives was reached in December 2017, paving the way to a final adoption in 2018[3].

This Strategy for Plastics is a specific, albeit non-binding document outlining possible commitments for action at EU, national and industry level to tackle this challenge. It articulates around objectives for the future and changing paradigms in the current production and consumption.


First, it calls for the creation of a circular value chain, designed to function into a closed loop, with a deadline of 2030 for all plastics packaging placed on the EU market to be either reusable or possibly recyclable in a cost-effective manner. This is also expected to create jobs and curb CO2 emissions by favouring social and innovative entrepreneurship.


Secondly, it recommends specific policies to be put in place to this effect:

-          Improving the economics and quality of plastics recycling;

-          Fighting littering, notably the spread of microplastics;

-          Encouraging investments, innovation, and alternatives to plastics, supported by EU and private funding;

-          Increasing global involvement of all stakeholders.


The impact for the oceans is very important given the difficulty to retrieve plastics entering this milieu. The costly nature of operations aiming at removing plastics from the environment implies that tackling plastic pollution is best done thanks to prevention and management of the “End of Life" phase of a product. This is why the Strategy aims at changing the current economic paradigm.


Further actions described in the annex outline two types of precise recommendations for the work to be done in the Strategy’s framework[4]. The first set lists EU legislations which could be developed and adopted in the near future to tackle this problem. These include the necessity for all plastics packaging to be cost-effectively recyclables or reusable by 2030, an eventual regulation on single-use plastics and possible financial incentives. The second set is an array of voluntary measures to be taken by the industry and national and regional authorities. While these are voluntary, their completion is an integral part of the Strategy.


With this text, the EU is presenting a clear signal to the plastics producers and consumers: it gives them an opportunity to present “voluntary pledges”, by June 2018, and more importantly, evaluate them. Should the contribution be deemed insufficient, the European Commission will then prepare steps forward nonetheless, among which “regulatory action”.  It marks a political will to move forward on plastics and into a circular economy.


Among the financial incentives evoked, a possible tax on plastics proposed by EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger has sparked the debate among his colleagues. Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella showed his support[5] while the Commissioner for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, expressed serious reserves[6]. This initiative could have far-reaching implication in the context of Brexit and the future European Budget, and is for now only in its inception.


Overall, the EC’s Plastics Strategy is a strong statement outlining the will of the EU to advance on the environmental and economic problems posed by plastics. Furthermore, it gives free room to the industry and Member States to come up with their own initiatives and solutions. This leeway is however balanced by the clear agenda for legislative measures, and the evocation of regulatory mechanisms to be put in place should the stakeholders fail to sufficiently advance on the topic.

[1]European Commission, “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/plastics-strategy.pdf , accessed 18.01.2018

[2]http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/legislation/index.htm , accessed 26.01.2018

[3] http://consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2017/12/18/council-and-parliament-reach-provisional-agreement-on-new-eu-waste-rules/

[4] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/plastics-strategy-annex.pdf   accessed 26.01.2018

[5] https://www.euractiv.com/section/circular-economy/interview/karmenu-vella-well-designed-plastics-tax-could-help-hit-environment-targets/ accessed 29.01.2018

[6] https://euobserver.com/institutional/140572 accessed 30.01.2018

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