Openingsspeech ‘Plastics Recycling Show Europe’, Amsterdam RAI, 10 mei 2023

Plastics: a blessing or a curse? Met die vraag opende staatssecretaris Vivianne Heijnen woensdag 10 mei de conferentie op de Plastics Recycling Show op de RAI in Amsterdam.

Goodmorning everybody,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my views on the circular economy and more specifically on circular plastics today. It is an honour to do so. I want to start with reading aloud the intro of an article from our Dutch online journalism platform ‘The Correspondent’. The headline is: ‘Do you want a challenge? Then try not touching any product made of plastic for one day.’
Then the author starts listing how your day probably has started. And I think we all recognize it… 😊

‘Chances are that you were sleeping on a mattress containing plastic. You were woken by the alarm clock on your smartphone, which is about half plastic. You pull out the charger and don't get electrocuted because all the electricity in your house is coated in a layer of protective plastic. In your bathroom many things are from plastic. The shower head, the flexible hose, the shower curtain. Water is drained through PVC pipes. Your toothbrush may be bamboo, but the bristles are nylon, and that's plastic too. You enjoy your first coffee out of a stone mug, but your coffee maker contains plastic parts. Time to go to work. It's raining outside, but luckily you have a rain coat. Made of polyester, a form of plastic. And whatever means of transport you use, a mere six per cent of it is plastic. This was only the first hour of your day. It shows that living plastic-free is utterly impossible. We don't live in a plastic age for nothing…’

Dear conference participants, 

Of course, living plastic-free is not my message here today. Plastics are both a blessing and a curse, and a world without them would be really difficult. But plastic pollution is becoming an increasingly urgent problem. So our challenge is to find ways to produce and use plastics in a sustainable way. 

But before I tell you more about our plastic policy, I first want to share with you what the circular economy means to the Dutch government. Why we put a strong focus on it. And how we want to accelerate the transition. 

By 2050, the Netherlands aspires to have a circular economy. This transition is not a luxury, but a necessity. Last month, on the 12th of April, we had our ‘Earth Overshoot Day’. Almost eight months earlier than intended, the Dutch have used the global biocapacity available for one year. In other words, if everyone on earth lives like the Dutch, 3.6 earths would be needed. But there is only one earth and we should take care of it, for ourselves and for our children! Therefore, we have to make sure that the environmental effects of our use of raw materials for production and consumption will fall within ‘planetary boundaries’. But, as we all know, this will not happen by itself. New measures are needed, including the ones less voluntary in nature. Efforts are needed at all levels. Governments, producers, entrepreneurs, citizens. 

In the beginning of this year, I presented the 2023-2030 National Circular Economy Programme to our parliament. This programme is not a zero point, but the continuation of years of commitment. Up to now, our circular economy policy has focused primarily on a voluntary, non-committal approach. But the time for voluntary action is over, we need mandatory and collective solutions. We will adopt a mix of pricing-, norm setting- and stimulus measures. General measures aimed at substitution and narrowing, slowing and closing the loop. Measures for specific product groups such as furniture, textiles, housing and wind farms. And supporting measures aimed at knowledge, innovation, education, purchasing and circular entrepreneurship. 

A circular economy approach can also help to tackle plastic pollution at the source. The plastics industry is currently responsible for about five per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This needs to be reduced drastically. Plastics, including microplastics, are polluting land, sea and air all over the world. 

But to combat the plastic pollution and plastic soup, we will not make it with recycling alone. Significant more action is needed to turn the tide. In my view, we need to increase the circularity of plastics by narrowing the loop, slowing the loop and closing the loop. In other words: Reducing the amount of plastics that we use. Stimulating the use of different, more sustainable materials. Longer use and the reuse of plastic products and packaging instead of single use. New plastics should be made from renewable carbon, such as plastic waste, sustainable biomass and eventually from CO2 conversion. Goals that are also reflected in European legislation, such as the Single-Use Plastics Directive and the European Council proposal for a Regulation on packaging and packaging waste of last November.

Given the large amount of microplastics surrounding us every day, we need to make people more aware of the health risks. Together with my colleague from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport I am financing an extensive multiyear program to investigate the risks of microplastics for human health. But we should not wait until all the results are available. I therefore have called upon the committee to introduce ambitious measures to reduce microplastics in all relevant European policies and legislation, such as the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR).

Dear conference participants, 

There is also positive news! The Netherlands has a large chemical industry and already a high degree of mechanical recycling. This means that I see opportunities for us to become a high-quality 'plastic recycling hub'. And while doing so, it is important that all plastic waste is recycled with a high plastic-to-plastic-efficiency, low energy consumption and high quality. Although, I realize these principles can sometimes be at odds with each other, I would like to ask all of you to pursue them. 

In order to achieve our national goals, it is important to scale up the mechanical recycling capacity and in addition also chemical recycling capacity. This requires a well-functioning recycled material market. I am therefore calling for ambitious norms for recycled content targets in packaging in Europe, including agreed calculation rules.  But my ambition goes further. The government will introduce in 2027 a national obligation to apply recycled plastics or biomass for the production of new plastics. This obligation should increase to a level of 30 per cent in 2030. The obligation will apply to all plastics and is foreseen to function similar to the current register for biofuels. My ministry will work together with colleagues from the ministry of Economics and Climate on further details and implementation of the obligation. Also, additional funds will become available to support the transition to circular plastics. By setting recycled content targets prio to EU legislation, by including all plastics instead of just certain product groups, and by helping businesses to close the plastic loop, we aim to become a European frontrunner on circular plastics!

To conclude. I think it is important to name things as they are. As long as a fossil economy is still a cheap, easy choice, a fully circular economy is a long way off. Raw fossil materials for the production of products as plastics are cheap and harmful to the environment. Sustainable and circular plastics do not harm the environment but are often more expensive and therefore cannot compete in most cases with linear products. This is where the conversation is needed and where all options are on the table. We need to be bold and ambitious to end plastic pollution and to achieve a fully circular plastic value chain. 

So, do you want a challenge? Let's make sure that plastics in the future will only be a blessing and not a curse!