On January 28, 2021, the non-profit organization Friends of Europe brought together a group of policymakers and key experts in an online debate to discuss how to achieve a circular plastics economy. The panel focused on, among other topics, the necessary actions to address the plastics problem in the long term, what the Circular Economy Action Plan of the EU can contribute, and what needs to happen so that recycled plastics will be able to compete with the virgin plastics market.

The panel featured the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), Hans Buryninckx, Lead for the New Plastics Economy Initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Sander Defruyt, Deputy Head of Cabinet of Executive Vice President of the European Commission, Sarah Nelen, as well as Maria Spyrarki, member of the European Parliament.

The discussion was held in light of a new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) (FPF reported) that proposed combining the three strategies of smarter use, increased circularity, and renewable materials to achieve a circular plastics economy. According to Buryninckx, environmental and climate impacts are not only limited to the waste stage but the whole life cycle of plastics.

Answering the question of what the EU can do to support all of its member countries in transitioning from linear to circular plastic economies, Maria Spyraki, a member of the EU parliament is critical of the EU not using the existing financial tools enough to support the development of the waste management sector. As a second aspect, she also sees the importance of engaging and educating the wider public and thereby increasing consumer awareness. Finally, she recommends the further update and monitoring of existing EU legislation, and she mentions the use of the Basel Convention as a successful mechanism to prevent plastic exports to non-EU countries (FPF reported).

However, in a recently published case study, the non-governmental organization Zero Waste Europe warns that as a consequence of banning the legal export to non-EU countries, illegal waste dumping inside the EU could increase. This would be mainly motivated by cost avoidance and made possible due to weak law enforcement in certain countries. The authors highlight that a big focus should be placed on the need for robust legislation and enforcement to counteract future increased illegal activities.

According to the ZWE study, the illegal waste trade is also driven significantly by the low cost of virgin plastic. Sander Defruyt from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation commented that a global treaty on plastics would be a great opportunity to set a common international direction for the issue. It could include elements such as extended producer responsibility schemes (EPRs) that require producers to pay for waste management and collection of their products.

Defruyt said that “we are facing an economic gap of 30 billion dollars” and argued that recycled plastics will not be able to compete with the virgin plastics market without instruments like EPR. Trade association Plastics Europe representative David Carrol agrees that EPR could be one important tool to help to close this cost gap. He says the industry supports the initiative of a global plastics agreement, however, it also sees a need to unify the EU single market for plastics and plastic waste.

Following the question of what to expect after the achievement of the single-use plastics ban (FPF reported), European Commission representative Sarah Nelen laid out the next targets of her organization as part of the Circular Economy Action Plan (FPF reported). She noted that the single-use plastics directive does not only stand for the “visible” ban but also the wider approach of new design and new labeling requirements, paving the way for addressing microplastic issues, plastic reduction targets, and implementing EPRs that are now underway. “There is legislation to deal with the end of life e.g. plastic packaging but we want to do more, we are not going to recycle [..] ourselves out of the problem.”

Defruyt concluded that a systemic problem will need a systemic solution. “We need to rethink what plastics we need on the market in the first place, remove all that is not necessary and innovate those we do need ensuring we can keep them in [the] recycling loop and [that] they do not leach into the environment or end up in landfills. [..] We also need to focus more on the design, improving design has a much bigger impact than including more recycled content.”

In his organization’s newly published report, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation sets five universal circular economy policy goals aimed to offer solutions to key global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, while at the same time delivering economic development. The report is intended to give guidance to governments on how to implement the concepts of the circular economy.

Read More 

Friends of Europe (January 28, 2021). “The way forward: plastics in a circular economy.”

Zero Waste Europe (January 28, 2021). “European waste trade impacts on Malaysia’s zero waste future.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (January 28, 2021). “New policy goals offer an opportunity for circular economy transition at scale.

Karen Laird (January 29, 2021). “Everyone on the same page: Universal goals for the circular economy.” Sustainable Plastics

European Parliament (January 27, 2021). “MEPs call for binding 2030 targets for materials use and consumption footprint.”

Zero Waste Europe (January 27, 2021). “Press Release: Zero Waste Europe welcomes European Parliament’s strong actions towards a decarbonised and circular EU economy.”

IISD (February 8, 2021). “UNCTAD Paper Highlights Potential of Trade Policy to Reduce Plastic Pollution.”

Megan Quinn (February 11, 2021). “2021 could be year for packaging EPR, nearly a dozen state bills in play.” Waste Dive

Y. Sun, et al. (April 27, 2021). “How Can the Scope of a New Global Legally Binding Agreement on Plastic Pollution to Facilitate an Efficient Negotiation Be Clearly Defined?Environmental Science and Technology


EEA (January 28, 2021). “Plastics, the circular economy and Europe′s environment —A priority for action.”

Zero Waste Europe (January 28, 2021). “European waste trade impacts on Malaysia’s zero waste future-A Case Study.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (January 28, 2021). “Universal circular economy policy goals.

ChemSec (January 28, 2021). “Plastic packaging in focus when brands and recyclers gathered to discuss circular economy.”