Speech by Sharon Dijksma, Minister for the Environment, at the EU Conference on Plastics

“We’re seeing changes in the plastics chain. But they’re not happening fast enough. The various initiatives are too isolated. Too fragmented. That’s why I’m going to negotiate strict agreements with major Dutch brand owners on scaling up market demand for recycled and biobased synthetics. And at EU level I’ll call for a mandatory requirement for recycled content. An incentive that will boost market innovation.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

The message in the video clip we’ve just seen is loud and clear: we need to step up the pace. Because there are new opportunities out there for people and business, and benefits for the environment.
A new future for plastics – that is our goal. Focusing on different design and different ways of using plastics.
And we need you for that! So I’m pleased you’re here: welcome!

Let’s first go back in history. Let’s trace plastic to its origins, in Birmingham, 160 years ago. After many experiments Alexander Parkes hit on the right mix of nitrocellulose and alcohol.

He called it Parkesine. It was the world’s first man-made plastic.
Parkes’ discovery was the start of a new era.
And what made it extra special? The cellulose Parkes used was derived from plants. In other words, the world’s first plastic was a bioplastic!
And now, 160 years later, we want to go back to the beginning...
It’s all about innovation, pioneering and trying things out.
The very qualities that you have. And that we urgently need now!

Plastic has many benefits. It’s flexible, strong and lightweight. But it also has disadvantages. It’s not easily degradable, and pollutes our environment and oceans.
Over the last 50 years the use of plastic has increased twenty-fold. A figure that’s expected to double over the next 20 years. And 20% of all plastic is made here in the EU!

You don’t really understand these numbers until you see and smell the effects. And talk to the people concerned.
Three weeks ago, I travelled to Indonesia on a climate mission. I saw a lot of plastic floating in the rivers and washed up on Bali’s beautiful beaches.
I also visited Bantar Gabang, Southeast Asia’s largest waste dump. It made an enormous impact on me.

110 hectares of trash. The scale was overwhelming. The smell was unbelievable. And the talks I had with some of the 4,000 plastic waste pickers made a deep impression on me.
Their livelihood is built on the smouldering remains of our waste.
That experience has fired me up to get things done.

Two political facts underscore the urgency and relevance of this conference.
First, the European Commission’s Strategy on Plastics, to be published next year.
Commissioner Frans Timmermans will present the contours of the new roadmap tomorrow. And he’ll go back to Brussels armed with your recommendations.

Second, the government-wide circular economy programme that I’ve launched in the Netherlands. It’s very ambitious. We aim for the Netherlands to have a fully circular economy by 2050.

The success of both programmes – the European and the national – depends on scaling up our efforts now.
The big challenge is to devise a good business model for plastic waste. And this conference is a springboard to achieving that.

I want to put in place the best possible conditions.
One of these is the value chain approach. An approach that, where possible, I want to scale up. Because it works.

 

Three years ago, stakeholders in my country signed a voluntary agreement on plastics. The results speak for themselves.

  • Like the recycled plastic tubs you saw in the video clip. A very promising new product.
  • Or sealant tubes. They contain silicon, which makes them difficult to sort and recycle. All parties have worked hard to develop a new tracing method. So now sealant tubes can be sorted and recycled.
  • We’re working on eight other flagship projects.
  • And we’ve got new tools: like guidelines on designing objects made from recycled plastics. You’ll be getting a copy tomorrow.

We also want to make a difference by increasing market demand for recycled plastics. This is still a problem. Because products made from virgin materials or fossil fuels are cheaper than sustainable alternatives.

 

So what’s needed now?

  • Do we need to focus on changing consumer behaviour?
  • Do we need statutory measures, like a tax on raw materials?
  • Or new directives to phase out non-recyclable packaging?  


Change doesn’t happen by itself. You need to push it in the right direction. And that’s something government can do.
So I’m going to negotiate strict agreements with major Dutch brand owners on scaling up market demand for recycled and biobased synthetics.
And at EU level I’ll call for a mandatory requirement for recycled content. An incentive that will boost market innovation.

Incentives are needed. And they work.
In January 2015 the Netherlands banned free plastic bags. The effect has been spectacular: the share of plastic bags in litter has fallen by 34%.
We can also steer change with extra funding. The Netherlands has made an extra 27 million euros available. As an incentive to finance groundbreaking projects, redesign packaging and raise public awareness.

But what’s most important are your actions and your ideas.
Yes, we’re seeing changes in the plastics chain. But they’re not happening fast enough. The various initiatives are too isolated. Too fragmented.

Let us look to Alexander Parkes, the inventor of plastic, for inspiration. He had no directives, no guidelines, no chain approach to guide him. Only his own conviction that he could create something new. Yet he changed the world.
So let’s make sure that the new EU strategy isn’t a Brussels strategy. Let’s make it our strategy – yours and mine!

I invite you to raise points that are incisive, practical and concrete.
The problem’s been identified. Now it’s all about fresh visions, actions and deeds. And the conviction that we can create a new future for plastic.

I can’t wait to hear your input!

Thank you.