27 Jul 2020

2020 was set to be momentous for plastics policy, marking the ultimate shift towards a circular economy. The COVID-19 crisis has, however, put a dent in the EU’s plans. The tremendous pressure on our healthcare and agri-food systems has resurfaced the debate on the role of plastics in our societies, as the global demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well as food packaging has resulted in a significant increase in demand for single-use plastics. In this new context, the question emerged: is it still feasible to continue pushing for ambitious plastic waste reduction policies, or is now a moment to revisit previous plans? Will consumer perceptions change, and will policymakers take a more favourable stance on plastics? Or will this crisis nonetheless be an opportunity to break with old habits and build a truly circular, sustainable and competitive economy?

About 247 billion pieces of plastic are currently floating in the Mediterranean Sea and every minute the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles are added to the mix. The fight against plastic waste has, therefore, been a hot topic for several years in Brussels and other EU capitals. In 2019, the EU introduced with record speed and massive public support rules to tackle marine litter, including a ban on common single-use plastics like cotton bud sticks, cutlery and straws. Earlier this year, the European Commission announced it would develop requirements to ensure that all packaging in the EU is reusable or recyclable by 2030, while the new Circular Economy Action Plan has identified packaging as a key value chain for the EU to act on.

In April, however, the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly changed the tone of the debate: industry asked for a delay on the implementation of plastics legislation and a removal of all bans on single-use items, arguing these are necessary to ensure hygiene and safety from contamination. While the Commission, with NGO support, dismissed these requests, several countries did adapt certain measures with a few months, such as a Slovakian deposit scheme on disposable plastic bottles, an Italian plastics tax, or a UK ban on single use plastics.

In Italy, consumer spend on packaged mandarins rose over 111% in March compared to 2019. Single-use plastic cups are making a return amid hygiene concerns

Indeed, consumer demand for packaged goods has spiked. In Italy, consumer spend on packaged mandarins rose over 111% in March compared to 2019. Single-use plastic cups are making a return amid hygiene concerns, for instance with a temporary ban on reusable mugs at Starbucks. In addition to allegedly reducing contamination risk, plastics can also increase shelf life, which is important when the circulation of food products is delayed across Europe, leading in some cases to increased food waste.

However, plastics pollution remains as big a concern as before. According to the WWF, if 1% of the PPE masks are disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this will result in up to 10 million masks per month polluting the environment. Indeed, masks and gloves have been systematically found in seven of the European largest rivers in June. Moreover, the increased plastic use in healthcare leads to enormous volumes of waste being unfit for recycling due to potential hazards. As a result, medical plastic waste is rapidly growing, followed by waste coming from the food and other industries where reusables are temporarily limited.

The recycling sector needs time and investments to recover, as it is not able to effectively handle massive volumes of post-pandemic plastic. In addition, the dramatic drop in oil prices has led to record low prices of virgin materials, reducing demand for recycled plastics and putting in jeopardy the development of a plastic recycling market. A right policy framework to strengthen and drive a market for high-quality recycled plastics is thus required to remedy the problem.

The Commission has a number of measures in the making. While NGOs advocate for focusing first on reuse and reduction, recycling cannot be ignored and is a crucial element in the plastics debate. Under a review of essential requirements for packaging, the Commission is looking to improve design for reuse and high-quality recycling, among others through the introduction of recycled content mandates. The Commission will also develop standards for biodegradable plastics, with a legislative framework for bio-based as well as bio-degradable and compostable plastics expected next year. Needless to say, proper disposal and collection are key for the success of any measure.

The Commission has also proposed to levy a tax on non-recycled plastics, potentially as early as 1 January 2021, while under the EU’s recovery plans, greening the economy remains a priority, by – among others – supporting investments and job creation in recycling. Funds will need to be directed not only at increasing the production of materials with improved recyclable qualities, innovative and high-quality recycling methods, but also at continuing efforts on reduction and reuse. In this context, companies who demonstrate innovation, flexibility and resilience in their sustainability strategies, offer solutions for responsible consumption and more circularity, have the best chances to weather the storm.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, there is a slightly more nuanced tone in the plastic-related debates, but the overall objectives have not changed. The EU is on track to increased circularity, and that process will not slow down. The EU and companies should thus continue educating consumers on the values of a circular economy and the reasons why they should reuse and recycle. Sustainability will only be achieved through a holistically integrated and collaborative approach taken by the EU, governments, companies and consumers.

On 30 April, we discussed the role of circular economy in the EU post-coronavirus recovery during a webinar with Dr Walter Stahel (academic) and William Neale (Circular Economy Adviser, European Commission).