Trends of plastic waste in the EU

About the report PLASTIC WASTE IN THE ENVIRONMENT Final report November 2010 from the European Commission DG ENV in association with BIO Intelligence Service, AEA Technology, Institute for European Environmental Policy

The full report is available on : http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/studies/pdf/plastics.pdf

Overall,says the report, the level of environmental impact associated with plastic waste is anticipated to increase over the period to 2015 due to continued growth in plastic waste production (associated with continued rises in plastic waste consumption). Over this period the rise in environmental impacts is anticipated to be comparatively slower than in the past as much of this increase in production is dealt with by recycling and energy recovery expansion. However, disposal levels are only anticipated to remain static or drop in a limited way, maintaining the overall picture of the environmental footprint. Bioplastics are growing extremely rapidly but from a very small base, and further research into life‐cycle environmental impacts is needed. As for recycling, it is also expected to grow in absolute terms and innovate technologically, but it will not keep up on current trends and so other solutions are needed.

After having described the trends in plastic waste generation and management, the  report develops a baseline scenario, presents five policy options that could change that scenario and analyses the most promising three of these in more detail.

Regulatory perspectives

Plastic waste cuts across a large number of policy fields and regulations are not usually targeted specifically at plastic waste. This makes it difficult for policy to evolve in line with trends in production, use and disposal. Policies and measures targeted specifically at plastic waste are needed, in co‐ordination with broader waste policy.

A mix of policy initiatives can be recommended, targeted at key sectors, treatment options and types. Those described in this report are:

1. Sustainable packaging guidelines

2. Agricultural plastic recovery and recycling guidelines

3. WEEE and automotive plastic waste targets

4. Recycled plastics and bioplastics phasing targets

5. Research innovation on the reduction of plastic waste

Of these, the first, second and fourth policy options were judged to be the most appropriate by the authors and effective ones for further consideration. Option 1 would be likely to have the most significant effect on plastic waste reduction and recovery because it targets packaging. It will depend on the involvement of producers and retailers, which will drive the success of the instrument.

Although the impact of Option 2 may be small, the option has the advantage of targeting a distinct sector and a particular type of material. Still, the difficulties of collection in rural areas must be taken into account.

As for Option 4, the main effect would be to reduce the amount of petroplastics sent to disposal, the environmental benefits of which depend on those of the recycled plastics and bioplastics that would replace them. The policy options are not mutually exclusive and would complement each other well.

Whichever mix of policy options might be chosen, more complete and timely data on plastics generation and waste is also needed to help policy makers to respond effectively. Better information would also aid the design of consumer awareness campaigns regarding appropriate use and disposal of plastics and bioplastics – improved awareness is vital to the successful implementation of policy in this domain.

About plastics

Plastic is a relatively cheap, durable and versatile material, says the report. Plastic products have brought benefits to society in terms of economic activity, jobs and quality of life. Plastics can even help reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in many circumstances, even in some packaging applications when compared to the alternatives. Plastic recycling needs to be carried out in a sustainable manner. However, it is attractive due to the potential environmental and economic benefits it can provide.

There is a wide variety of recycled plastic applications and the market is growing. Packaging is by far the largest contributor to plastic waste at 63%. Average EU‐27 per‐capita generation of plastic packaging waste was 30.6 kg in 2007.

Plastic waste also imposes negative environmental externalities, underlines the report. It is usually non‐biodegradable and therefore can remain as waste in the environment for a very long time; it may pose risks to human health as well as the environment; and it can be difficult to reuse and/or recycle in practice. According to the report (p 103), the environmental impacts of incinerating plastic waste (as for most solid wastes or fuels) can include some airborne particulates and greenhouse gas emissions. Plants that are compliant with the Waste Incineration Directive are not thought to have any significant environmental impact. Also, there is a risk of plastic waste recycling affecting local populations in countries with less stringent regulations than in the EU and where recycling techniques used to treat plastic waste can be relatively primitive. (p 106).

With regards to bioplastics, based on the review of their Life Cycle analysis(LCAs), the authors consider that it is not easy to predict the environmental impacts of increasing bioplastics use. Their description as compostable can be confusing for the general public as not all bioplastics are compostable at home like organic food waste (such items are labelled “home compostable”) but usually require an industrial composting treatment not available at every composting site (p 113).

An issue of particular concern for the authors is that giant masses of plastic waste have been discovered in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the full environmental impacts of which are not yet fully understood but which cause severe damage to seabirds, marine mammals and fish. (see also the recently summarized report on the GreenFacts Blog : http://blog.greenfacts.org/en/472-report-of-the-international-workshop-on-microplastic-particles-as-a-vector-in-transporting-persistent-bioaccumulating-and-toxic-substances-in-the-ocean-organised-by-gesamp1

About plastic recovery and recycling

A constraint on the use of recycled plastics is that plastic processors require large quantities of recycled plastics, manufactured to strictly controlled specifications at a competitive price in comparison to virgin plastic. Such constraints are challenging, in particular because of the diversity sources and types of plastic waste and the high potential for contamination. Because of its abundant use in packaging, Low Density PolyEthylene  is the most recovered polymer in plastic waste followed by High Density PolyEthylene. PolyPropylene and PET volumes are projected to grow strongly because of their increasing use in packaging and also in the automotive and EEE sectors for PP. Polystyrene volumes are in the same range as PP and PET and PVC much lower. Volumes of more technical plastic waste (ABS, PA, PU) are not expected to grow substantially. (see figure 2-21 of the report).

PLASTIC WASTE IN THE ENVIRONMENT

Final report November 2010. European Commission DG ENV In association with  BIO Intelligence Service,  AEA Technology Institute for European Environmental Policy.

Specific contract 07.0307/2009/545281/ETU/G2 under Framework contract ENV.G.4/FRA/2008/0112

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission. The recommendations given by the authors should not be interpreted as political or legal signal that the Commission intends to take a given action.

Note : The short presentations  of recent scientific reports on health and the environment  published on the GreenFcats blog are not verified by its Scientific Board

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