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Speaking at the recent PolyTalk 2012 event, a major plastics industry summit held in Wiesbaden, the capital of the German federal state of Hesse, the European Commissioner for Environment, Dr. Janez Potocnik outlined his vision for the increased recycling of waste plastics, and a reduction in the quantity of such wastes being sent for energy recovery.
Giving a keynote speech under the title 'Any Future for the Industry in Europe?', the commissioner began by highlighting not only the exponential growth to the world's population over the past century, but also the massive increase in the number of middle class consumers predicted over the next 20 years.
"During the 20th century, the world increased its fossil fuel use by a factor of 12, whilst extracting 34 times more material resources. It was called the 'great acceleration' and we – a happy few in the rich world - enjoy the benefits of that acceleration. But I am afraid it would be simply disastrous for 9 billion people, or even 7 billion, to consume 16 tonnes of materials a year, as we do here in Europe; or to throw away six tonnes every year," argued Potocnik.
According to the commissioner, if the world continues on its 'business as usual' scenario, we will need three times more resources by 2050, which is simply not a viable option. We need to reduce the volume of virgin materials used by industry, recycle, substitute, reduce and make resources go further, he said
"We need to achieve 'real and absolute decoupling' of economic growth from resource-use and pollution. That is the vision that the European Commission has integrated into its economic strategy – Europe 2020 – through the adoption of a Roadmap to a Resource-efficient Europe," continued Potocnik.
The future for plastic waste
Global plastic production has increased from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 245 million tonnes per year in 2008, with around 60 million tonnes produced in Europe. The commissioner stressed that as such the plastics industry must play a full part achieving the goals of Europe 2020, and called on the industry to come up with plastic products that are repairable, updatable, dismantlable and durable, and that do not contain hazardous substances.
Nearly 50% of plastic in Europe goes to landfill, broadly the equivalent to 12 million tonnes of crude oil. The other half goes to recovery, mostly energy recovery, and to a lesser extent into recycling, explained Potocnik.
"I know that we can – and we should - do better, because underneath those European figures there are six Member States that have virtually eliminated landfilling, recovering 90% of plastic waste, while others still bury 80% to 90%," he noted.
According to Potocnik there are two major objectives to pursue. Firstly, landfill rates must go down as quickly as possible, and secondly it is important to switch from energy recovery to increased recycling. Plastic recycling rates are far too low across Europe with an average of just 24%, he added.
"Today, even in countries with high recovery rates there is simply not enough plastic available for recycling because most of it goes into energy recovery," continued the commissioner.
Potocnik went on to explain that the dominance of energy recovery over recycling is not acceptable in the medium-term and that recyclers are mostly SMEs providing solid employment in Europe.
"Recycling technology has moved forward quickly. But still has some way to go. Whereas - thanks to EU legislation - about 85% of every car is now recycled, only about 25% of every new car is built with recycled materials, and much of this difference is down to plastic. Too often plastic is down-cycled, not recycled," the summit heard.
Marine waste and plastic bags
Another major bone of contention concerning plastic waste is the issue of plastic bags and marine litter. On average around 80% of marine plastic litter originates from the land.
According to Potocnik much of the plastic that people throw away is not properly collected, sorted and treated, or even correctly landfilled, and too often it ends up in the oceans. In particular the commissioner pin pointed the problems posed by plastic bags as being very preventable problems.
In 2010 Europe used 85.3 billion plastic bags - 200 bags per person. Several Member States have already significantly reduced the number of plastic bags through pricing measures.
Potocnik said that the commission is now finalising an impact assessment on different options for reducing the number of plastic carrier bags, and that judging by previous examples, pricing measures combined with targets are likely to be the most attractive option.
"We all agree that plastic should not be in the marine environment, and yet we find high sea waters with a concentration of microplastics six times higher than the concentration of plankton, ready to be ingested by sea fauna," he added.
In summing up his keynote speech the commissioner urged his audience to not only make all plastic fully recyclable, but also to avoid excessive plastic production for applications that are not obviously useful.
"Without finger-pointing in any specific direction, we have to admit that we all have a responsibility to work closely together, producers, consumers, recyclers and waste operators, and of course policy makers. Plastic must be responsibly managed and produced, using the life-cycle assessment methodology. It must be responsibly used and recycled from cradle to cradle without escaping a closed loop of responsible treatment at its end of life phase," concluded Potocnik.
The commissioner also said that he will soon be launching a broad debate on plastic in the context of resource efficiency by issuing green paper on plastic waste in the environment.
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