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“Circular economy is here to stay,” EU policy expert tells PlastiCircle

8 January 2019

If 2018 was a whirlwind year in Brussels for the circular economy of plastics, 2019 promises to be very different with a changing of the guard at the European Commission and the European Parliament. To take stock of the situation for plastics in Europe, caught up with Annika Hedberg, senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC).

Why did the circular economy of plastics make it so far up the EU agenda in 2018?

To some extent, this came as a surprise. For this European Commission, looking back to 2014 and the the start of the term, circular economy in general was not a priority in the beginning. It is great to see how big the topic became in the end, and how much effort the Commission put into taking the agenda forward. Civil society certainly played an enormous role in this. If it were not for civil society, I don’t think we would be where we are today and circular economy would not have become such a priority.

Addressing the plastics challenge gained traction undoubtedly because at a high level in the Commission, it was recognised that there would be public buy-in for doing more to address the challenge. The media and the public have shown great interest in the topic this year. Thus, for the Commission, this was probably seen as an “easy win” with European citizens.

When we look at the Single-use plastics Directive, and how quickly the EU institutions came to an agreement on this… it is quite impressive and remarkable that they were able to reach an agreement by December. This demonstrates political buy-in for action. At the same time, obviously the devil is in the detail and the implementation of the Directive will be another story. Overall, the public support and the political interest for “easy wins” help to explain the push for action.

What were the main highlights from 2018 in this regard?

On the circular economy agenda, plastics were of course the number one topic in 2018. The EU Plastics Strategy [January 2018] was hugely important, with a lot of hopes pinned on that. In addition to the focus on single-use plastics, the Commission invited industry to put forward voluntary pledges on the uptake of recycled plastics. The Commission’s recent initial evaluations of the pledges show that the pledges will most probably not be enough: more needs to be done to develop a market for recycled plastics and the pledges may need to be coupled with additional, possibly regulatory, measures. What was not yet properly addressed in 2018 was the question of micro-plastics, as the work on this is ongoing.

In 2019, what comes next in the Brussels bubble for the circular economy?

The issue with the policy agenda in Brussels in 2019 is that everyone is gearing up to finalise this term – this Commission, this Parliament. The Parliament is starting to prepare for the spring elections, and the different departments in the Commission are starting to reflect on their agendas and suggestions for the next Commission.  So whatever needs to happen this term must happen now! The year 2019 is mainly a period of reflection on the wishes for the next Commission and the next Parliament.

On micro-plastics, the European Chemicals Agency is looking into this and the expectation is that it will release a restriction proposal on microplastics in the beginning of 2019. When exactly this will happen and what the following steps will be, we shall see. The time is running out for bringing substantial new proposals for debate this term.

However, in getting across the messages on political priorities for the next Commission and the Parliament, 2019 is important. It is important to ensure that there is buy-in and understanding that circular economy is here to stay and more needs to be done to get that transition going. And of course there are issues that this Commission has not been able to consider. One such issue is the role of digitalisation in supporting the transition to the circular economy – something we are working on at the European Policy Centre. The Commission itself has recognised that it has failed to address this. So now is the time to start having that discussion; what it is that we want the next Commission to look at and prioritise next term.