In Focus

“The European Commission’s Action Plan is pursuing a promising strategy”

Interview with Piotr Barczak (EEB)

The EU has taken various steps to restrict plastics consumption in Europe and boost recycling rates. Piotr Barczak, Senior Policy Officer for Waste at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of European environmental organisations, is an expert in reducing plastics consumption. In this interview he talks about the opportunities opened up by the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive, which – among other things – introduces minimum quotas for the use of recycled plastic and bans certain plastic products. Barczak also evaluates the Circular Economy Action Plan published by the European Commission in March 2020. This presents measures to prevent waste and maximise recycling.

Piotr Barczak, where do we stand in Europe with regard to plastics recycling?

In Europe, 42 percent of plastic packaging is currently recycled and the percentage is gradually increasing. However, worrying trends highlight that virgin plastic production is on the rise and so is the combustion of plastics for energy generation.

How do you view the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive?

We are very pleased with this directive, because among other things it lays down a fast procedure, has broad support, holds industry to account and specifies product design requirements. The Chinese ban on imports of plastics waste has of course speeded this up. At the same time, we consider that the directive should be extended to other single-use plastic products such as balloons and hygiene products.

Should there also be stricter rules on plastic carrier bags?

Yes. Many countries still struggle to implement correctly the 2016 directive tackling plastic bags. On product level this depends mainly on how the bags are used. A plastic carrier bag is not necessarily a bad thing if it is used repeatedly. A paper or cotton bag is also not sustainable if it is only used once.

How do you rate the Circular Economy Action Plan?

It is the most ambitious plan ever published by the EC, so of course we welcome it. Behind it there are promising measures that address a number of relevant points such as recyclability, ecodesign and waste prevention. It also highlights the importance of waste reduction for sectors producing textiles and electronics, which was not the case previously, and it involves players such as the automotive sector and information and communication technology.

How can greater recycling be facilitated?

We think a minimum quota of 25 percent recycled material by 2025 would be useful – not just for packaging but also for other plastic products. The aim is to create a pull measure, market demand. A quota of that sort would provide a good incentive to stop combusting plastics waste on such a large scale. Boosting the separate collection of different types of household waste will also help.

What points are missing from the European Commission’s Action Plan?

We need an overall policy target for reducing resource use in order to decouple plastics consumption from that. In addition, we believe that the market value of plastics needs to be artificially enhanced, perhaps via a tax, to incentivise its circulation. However, it would be essential to ensure that this money flows back into waste management.

What other requirements do you think should be imposed on industry?

Manufacturing companies need to be completely transparent with regard to what materials they use. This is crucial if the whole supply chain is to become more sustainable. It is of help not only to consumers but also – and particularly importantly – to recycling businesses, who then know exactly what type of plastic they are dealing with, including whether it may contain toxic substances. This applies of course not only to Europe but also to businesses that import into the EU. There is a need here for better and more extensive market monitoring. Transparency will eventually benefit environmental protection by making sustainability a core criterion for conducting business.

Thank you for talking to eco@work.

The interviewer was Christiane Weihe.

Interviewed by eco@work: Piotr Barczak, Senior Policy Officer for Waste at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB)