Europe had a remarkable demonstration of this recently, with the successful testing of a 3D printer in zero gravity conditions, on board the International Space Station.
A European printer, made in Europe using European technologies, opening the way to a future where spare parts and tools can be made to measure, using reusable plastics 400 km above the Earth.
Europe believes in that future, and that’s why we have set out a new Strategy for plastics, to strengthen the industry and ready it for the challenges ahead.
Europe’s plastics industry currently employs 1.5 million people, producing nearly 50 million tonnes of the material every year.
The strategy will protect those jobs, while also addressing the problems that spring to mind when we think of plastics – low recycling, littering on land and at sea, and inadequate levels of investment.
The first task of the strategy is simple business sense: if we want change at scale, we need to improve the economics, and the quality, of plastic recycling.
Plastic packaging makes up 60 percent of all Europe’s plastic waste, so it’s logical to start here.
The headline target is to make all plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030; this will help Member States achieve 55% plastic recycling targets agreed in the review of waste legislation.
New rules are being developed to improve the recyclability of plastics, and increase the demand for recycled plastic content.
The uptake of recycled plastics in new products is very low, around 6%, concentrated in low-value or niche applications.
This low demand means few incentives to invest in the processing capacity that will improve the quality of recyclates, bringing down costs.
The recent restrictions on exports of plastic waste to China further increase the pressure to increase European demand for secondary plastics.
With more plastic collected, and more demand for secondary plastics it will be easier to improve and scale up recycling facilities.
A better and standardised system for the separate collection and sorting of waste across the EU will also improve the economics of recycling, saving around a hundred euros per tonne collected.
The changes will be complemented with measures to stimulate design for circularity, encouraging traceability of products, improving separate waste collection, and a reliable system to verify recycled content, to build confidence about what goes into recyclates.
Rather than imposing regulation, we have opted for a pledging campaign, asking all stakeholders to make voluntary pledges to boost the uptake of recycled plastics.
But these pledges are just a start, and we are also looking into other incentives, and ways of removing the barriers to higher use of recycled plastics in domains such as packaging and the automotive manufacture.
The second strand is curbing plastic waste. When half the litter found on Europe’s beaches is single-use plastics, the scale of the problem is all too clear.
Citizens are demanding strong, effective action, and we intend to deliver.
The aim is to prevent items like bottles, cutlery, straws, cotton buds and cups and lids from entering our environment in the first place, through a new legislative proposal on single-use plastics.
Work is ongoing at speed, as the aim is to adopt a proposal in May. Single-use plastics are a broad social issue, and cutting their use means adopting a different mind-set.
The Commission is setting a good example, phasing out the use of all single-use plastic cups in water fountains and vending machines in its buildings and meetings, in the hope that others follow this lead.
This proposal will also address the issue of fishing gear that is lost at sea, with severe consequences for marine species and fisheries.
If we want more success stories like the Altran Italia 3D printer referred to above, more investment will be essential.
EU funding will help address this issue, channelled through a new Strategic Research Innovation Agenda for Plastics that will help guide future funding decisions.
The focus will be the design of smarter, more recyclable plastic materials and products, more efficient recycling processes, removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics, and addressing microplastics.
Horizon 2020 will play an important role as well.
Europe’s biggest research programme is investing an additional EUR 100 million in plastics innovation, on top of more than EUR 250 million already invested so far.
The European Structural and Investment Funds, together with the European Funds for Strategic Investments, are already supporting projects that are helping build a more sustainable and innovative plastic value chain.
The feasibility of a private-led investment fund is also being examined. The idea is to finance investments in innovative solutions and technologies to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic production.
But however much funding Europe generates, these global issues require a global response.
So the final component in the strategy is action on the wider stage, with the Commission working closely with its international partners to prevent plastic waste and marine litter in regions such as East and South-East Asia, the Mediterranean, and in major world river basins, and working towards international standards on sorted plastic waste and recycled plastics.
To take the plan forward, we need companies to come forward with more pledges to boost the uptake of recycled plastics before our 30 June deadline.
The more pledges we get, the greater the potential for creating the positive feedback loops the industry needs.
This strategy is a sturdy base to build on, and its solid foundations will be part of the legacy of the Juncker Commission.