Some say NO!

National governments and the European Union are issuing increasingly restrictive regulations to reduce the proliferation of plastic waste and to promote recycling. Restrictions on microplastics, and single-use and oxo degradable items are coming

by Francesco Illariuzzi

For a few years now, the plastic production and processing sector has been under concentric attack that no longer only impacts the traditional clash between environmentalists and the chemical industry. Consumers, local authorities, governments and the European Union are growing their insistence for companies, large and small alike, to make a greater commitment to fight the pollution of waters and the dispersal of single-use items, used for just minutes, but destined to impact the environment for decades.

 

Industry’s reasoning

The plastic industry’s answer is that the problem is not plastic in itself, but how it is used and disposed of by consumers. The industry is ready to take on its part of the responsibility, helping to resolve the problem, but it is not prepared to shoulder the entire cost for the lack of an effective waste management system in emerging countries, for the absence of efficient filtration systems in washing machines and other domestic appliances (causing microfibres and fragments to be released into the sea), and for people who dump packaging in the environment rather than throwing it in waste baskets. It also points out that plastic does not only represent a mere environmental cost: it helps, in fact, reduce energy consumption, contributing to the fight against climate change. Light and resistant, it can be used to build vehicles and airplanes that require less fuel. And, limiting the analysis to packaging, plastic offers greater protection for the environment, increasing shelf-life by a third and thereby reducing food waste.

Environmental associations, on the other hand, are asking plastic and plastic packaging makers to bear greater responsibility, as extensively as possible, deeming them the most responsible for polluting the environment. In the middle are governments and supranational authorities, who on the one hand need to respond to the public’s growing environmental awareness, and not just in western nations, and on the other they cannot ignore the legitimate needs of industry, who cannot carry the full weight of the environmental problem and who, at the same time, contribute to economic and social development, creating jobs and supporting welfare through taxes.

Banning plastic is impossible, but we must prevent it from continuing to reach the sea, our food and our bodies” Frans Timmermans

 

EU strategy on plastic

In this context, in January this year the European Commission presented its Plastics Strategy, the regulatory framework that will guide the EU’s decisions on plastics and the environment in upcoming years. The framework does not yet consist of actual legislative proposals, which will be introduced subsequently through specific provisions or amendments to EU directives like the ones on waste or on packaging and packaging waste.

The starting point is a figure that gives pause for thought: every year, Europeans generate 25 million tons of plastic waste, but a little less than 30 per cent is collected to be recycled: the rest, in the best-case scenario, is destined for export and waste-to-energy plants, in the worst-case scenario, it ends up buried in landfills. The philosophy driving the European Commission was summarized by Frans Timmermans, the first vice president entrusted with sustainable development: «If we do not change the way we produce and use plastics, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. We cannot live without plastics, but it can hurt us unless we change our policies. Banning plastics is impossible, but we must prevent it from continuing to reach the sea, our food and our bodies. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more».

To achieve this objective, the Commission aims at introducing a combination of incentives and restrictions. For example, it wants to incentivise the maritime sector to promote the collection of waste and fishing equipment in the ports, backed by subsidies to create suitable collection and disposal structures. Or, in addition, promote ecodesign in order to develop packages that are easier to recycle and reducing the variety of polymers, additives and pigments used by industry. The Commission also intends to review regulations on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), but at the same time it plans to boost resources destined for research and innovation, adding €100 million to the €150 million already set aside as part of the Horizon 2020 package. Innovation not only in recycling processes, but also in the development of biobased and biodegradable materials, however placing attention on not polluting conventional plastic recycling flows and creating quality standards also for this class of materials.

“Today we throw away 90 per cent of the value of plastic packaging, while only 5 per cent returns to circulate in our economy, and this makes no sense” Jyrki Katainen

 

More recycling capacity and shared standards

Collecting more waste is not enough, even when well sorted: it still needs to be recycled. And with the block on waste imports in China, disposing of millions of tons of heterogeneous plastic, often difficult to reuse, could pose a problem, partly because – as opposed to goods and services – a single market does not yet exist for waste and regenerated materials, with regulatory barriers that often limit circulation. Jyrki Katainen, vice president of the Commission for work, growth, investments and competitiveness, places the emphasis on this aspect: «Today we throw away 90 per cent of the value of plastic packaging, while only 5 per cent returns to circulate in our economy, and this makes no sense», he says. «We need greater recycling capacity, but this is not enough: to create a single market for plastic waste and recycled plastic, we need common standards that will ensure quality among recyclers and processors». The Commission will therefore undertake to develop standards and promote the development of recycling, in quantitative and qualitative terms, with positive reflections even in employment terms. The objective is to quadruple the 2015 capacity for selecting and recycling by 2030, creating 20,000 new jobs.

 

Only recyclable packaging by 2030

The EU’s Plastics Strategy however does not take account of resources and incentives. One of the objectives is that by 2030 all plastic packaging introduced in the European market is recyclable or reused in an economically convenient manner. It is still not clear what is, in concrete terms, intended as being recyclable, especially on a European level (packaging collection and recovery systems vary greatly between countries) and no word has been given on how to achieve this result, but the target has been placed on the range. And not only: also by 2030, at least half of plastic waste generated in the EU must effectively be recycled.

In addition, with the Plastics Strategy, restrictions have been announced for single-use packaging and articles, a provision that will, without doubt, cause much discussion: specific measures could be issued by Brussels as early as this year, based on a consultation by interested parties and examination of scientific studies.

 

Ban on microbeads and oxo degradable plastics

While for some measures, it has so far been a case of merely declaring intentions, the procedure for banning microplastics from being intentionally added to products has been launched, for example, exfoliants from cosmetic products and detergents (and also added to paint), though it appears more difficult to battle the release of fragments from fabrics (microfibres) and tyres (powder): for the latter, Brussels considers it more effective to enter voluntary agreements with the industry or develop technologies to provide incentives through scientific research.

The Commission has also already announced restrictions on the use of fragmenting oxo degradable and similar plastics: these are polymers with added substances that facilitate the breakdown of polymer chains without being completely biodegradable, and for this reason they are deemed a possible source of pollution to the seas by microplastics.

Regulation of microplastics and oxo degradable products has already been assigned to the European Chemicals Association (ECHA), by including these substances in annex XVII of the regulation REACh, that involves – once the danger has been established – restrictions on production, sale and use. It is a procedure that will require at least four years to complete.

Microplastics under fire
They are not easy to see like bottles and bags that float on the water, but they are more dangerous because they can enter the food chain through fish and reach our tables: microplastics and microfibres (released from clothes while washing), with diameter of less than 2 millimetres, is the real environmental challenge to protect oceans, rivers and lakes. It is a problem that also affects our country. According to a study by CNR (Italy’s national research council), in fact, in the Mediterranean there are, on average, 1.25 million plastic fragments every square kilometer, compared to 335,000 plastic fragments measured in the subtropical vortex of the Southern Pacific measured in 1999. Microplastics originate from the deterioration of plastic items abandoned in the sea, but not only: the majority are microbeads with diameter of less than 5 millimetres intentionally added to cosmetics, soaps and toothpastes to act as exfoliant. Because of their small size, these fragments are not processed by treatment systems, thereby they end up in the sea, where they enter the food chain.

 

Bans in Italy and the United Kingdom

In the meantime, some member states have taken steps to regulate the addition of microplastics on a national level. In the United Kingdom, from 9 January, the production of cosmetics containing microplastics has been banned; in a few months, the ban will also be extended to the sale of these products.

Italy has decided to ban cosmetic cleansers with exfoliants or detergents containing microplastics, solid plastic particles, water insoluble, 5 millimetres or smaller, intentionally added to cosmetic products from 1 January 2020. The penalties for offenders are hefty and exceed those already in place for single-use bags: fines start at €2,500 rising to €25,000 and rising to quadruple the amount if the violation regards large quantities of cosmetic products, or if the value of goods exceeds 20 per cent of the offender’s revenue. Outside of Europe, a similar measure has been in place in the United States since 2015 and will be adopted this year also in Canada and New Zealand.

Even sustainable alternative feedstock, like biobased feedstock, must be encouraged for the purpose of removing fossil fuels from the plastic economy” François de Bie

 

The response of PlasticsEurope

The answer from industry to the EU’s Plastics Strategy was quick to come, but – as expected – it was not unanimous. PlasticsEurope, which represents European plastics manufacturers, has announced its substantial support for the proposal – though with some perplexity – and has announced, in support of the initiative, the “Plastics2030 – Voluntary Commitment” plan. The document contains a commitment to increase the recovery of plastics with the rather ambitious goal of reusing or recycling 60 per cent of plastics produced for consumption as plastic packaging by 2030, to reach the complete reuse, recycling or recovery of all packaging a decade later. PlasticsEurope has reiterated its commitment to preventing the dispersal of plastics in the environment through initiatives and projects to boost awareness of sustainable behaviour among consumers or through initiatives like “Zero Pellet Loss”, launched at the Port of Antwerp with the aim of preventing the accidental leakage of plastic granules during loading and unloading operations.

«The Italian plastics industry is completely aligned with Europe in this challenge, requiring investment, capacity for innovation and openness to dialogue» confirmed Massimo Covezzi, president of PlasticsEurope Italy, the Federchimica association representing Italian plastic producers. «On a national level, we hope that the spirit of EU guidelines is fully accepted, without useless penalties for a manufacturing sectors that is strategic for our country».

The mystery of the EU tax
Taxing single-use plastic articles on a European level to partly finance the gaps in the balance sheet from Brexit: the proposal issued by the Commissioner for the Budget, Gunter Oettinger, meant the worst was feared until it was not significantly revised by Frans Timmermans, vice president for sustainable development and by Jyrki Katainen, vice president of the Commission for employment, growth, investments and competition. According to the two commissioners, the proposal will be examined by the Commission, but already the introduction suggests it will be difficult to apply on a Europe-wide level: «It could prove to be an instrument to reach economic and environmental objectives, but we have not yet found an effective way to apply it», Katainen explained, pointing out that while it was true that taxes on single-use plastic bags worked, it is also true that they were introduced autonomously by member states. Until today, in fact, there is no community tax set directly by Brussels. It is also true that the European Union must soon face the problem of a lack of revenues deriving from the UK’s exit, which – according to initial estimates – will create a gap in EU financing of between €12 and 14 billion euro, which will be compensated, in equal parts, by higher income and spending cuts. And a tax on plastics – a material that today has a poor reputation among EU citizens – could pose too large a temptation for the Commission, thus paving the way for other EU forms of taxation.

 

Industry: 2040 objective

A different voluntary commitment has been presented by six industry associations: Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE), Petcore Europe, European Carpet and Rug Association (ECRA), Polyolefin Circularity Platform (PCEP Europe), European Plastics Converters (EuPC) and VinylPlus. In the Circularity Platforms plan, these organizations undertake to work to reach a recovery and recycling target of at least 50 per cent of plastic waste in Europe by 2040, a percentage that rises to 70 per cent for plastic packaging alone. The programme is inspired by similar initiatives already launched by VinylPlus and Petcore Europe, respectively with PVC and PET, involving a voluntary commitment by industry to pre-established and verifiable objectives, to implement throughout the entire plastic pipeline, from producers to designers, as well as processors, collectors and recyclers. In the Circularity Platform, processors and compounders undertake to use greater quantities of plastics, on the condition that quality and the availability of material is guaranteed and that final users include recycled material in their specifications.

On a national level, we hope that the spirit of EU guidelines is fully accepted, without useless penalties for a manufacturing sectors that is strategic for our country” Massimo Covezzi

More was expected of bioplastics

Acclaim for the commitment, but substantial disappointment for the attention paid to the Plastics Strategy on bioeconomy topics, comes from the European Bioplastics (EUBP), the association representing bioplastics in Europe. The Commission is credited with having set clear objectives for reducing plastic waste and encouraging companies to use resources more efficiently, with positive implications for employment, without however resorting to a global approach to the problem, because everything is centred on mechanical recycling, while concrete measures destined to reduce dependency on virgin fossil fuels and promoting biobased and biodegradable plastics are lacking, despite – the association confirms – knowing their contribution to the circular economy. «The bioplastics derived from renewable sources are a sustainable alternative for numerous plastic items» says François de Bie, president of European Bioplastics. «In many applications, recycled plastics are not always sufficient, due to low quality or safety reasons, while the increase in the recycled content of plastics is important to reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Even sustainable alternative feedstock, like biobased feedstock, must be encouraged for the purpose of removing fossil fuels from the plastic economy». At the same time, «The use of biomass cultivated in the EU for the production of bioplastics will drive employment and growth in the bioeconomy» de Bie points out.

European Bioplastics on the other hand, unconditionally welcomes the net distinction between biodegradable and oxo degradable plastics and the decision to restrict the use of the latter in the EU.

e food chain through fish and reach our tables: microplastics and microfibres (released from clothes while washing), with diameter of less than 2 millimetres, is the real environmental challenge to protect oceans, rivers and lakes. It is a problem that also affects our country. According to a study by CNR (Italy’s national research council), in fact, in the Mediterranean there are, on average, 1.25 million plastic fragments every square kilometer, compared to 335,000 plastic fragments measured in the subtropical vortex of the Southern Pacific measured in 1999.

Microplastics originate from the deterioration of plastic items abandoned in the sea, but not only: the majority are microbeads with diameter of less than 5 millimetres intentionally added to cosmetics, soaps and toothpastes to act as exfoliant. Because of their small size, these fragments are not processed by treatment systems, thereby they end up in the sea, where they enter the food chain.