Written by Didier Bourguignon,
Plastics are everywhere in our daily life: they are used in packaging, buildings, cars, electronics, agriculture, and other sectors. Plastics production is now 20 times higher than in the 1960s, and is forecast to almost quadruple by 2050. Although there are thousands of types of plastics, 90 % of plastics are derived from virgin fossil fuels. About 6 % of global oil consumption is used to produce plastics; by 2050, this share could reach 20 %.
In Europe, about 40 % of post-consumer plastic waste is incinerated with energy recovery, and the rest is either landfilled or recycled. About half of the plastic waste collected and recycled is treated in the European Union; the other half is exported, mainly to China.
Cheap, durable and versatile, plastics bring us multiple benefits. However, these very qualities can also pose problems when plastics end up in the environment, with impacts on nature, the climate and human health. It is estimated that 2 to 5 % of plastics produced end up in the ocean. Some of these are microplastics, resulting either from the degradation of larger plastic pieces in the sea or from the release of micro pieces of plastic (for instance from the laundering of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving).
Improving the way we use plastic resources
Plastics are an iconic example of the traditional linear economic model, based on a ‘take-make-consume-throw away’ pattern, illustrated by single-use plastic packaging. In contrast, the European Union promotes a circular economy, where products and the materials they contain are highly valued, and where waste is reduced to a minimum.
Making the plastics value chain more circular means improving recycling, promoting reuse, and redesigning products, while taking into account the whole life-cycle of products. It could deliver opportunities (in particular enhanced security of supply, economic benefits and reduced pressure on the environment). Nevertheless, a transition to circularity also faces challenges (in particular weak economic incentives, technical issues associated with plastics recycling and finance).
The European Parliament has consistently called for greater circularity, for tackling illegal exports, and for fighting plastic waste littering.
Listen to podcast ‘Plastics and the circular economy‘