Opening Keynote Speech of Frans Timmermans at the Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference (Brussels, 20 February 2018)

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

I am happy to be here today welcoming you to our annual Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference. As with the previous conferences, the number of those wishing to participate greatly exceeded the space we have available. People are probably also watching online.

It does show how important the circular economy is to all of us, and also to our friends and colleagues who have to settle for watching via web stream this time. Good morning, wherever you are.

I must say that by now this is starting to feel like a family reunion, because I see many of the same faces each time we organise these conferences. So whilst we must talk about recycling, I have to be careful not to recycle too much of my old speeches!

We first met like this in 2015. At that time, our cause was not necessarily flavour of the month. We were swimming a little bit against the tide when we spoke about the importance of the circular economy. And to many it was still the great unknown.

So I am really very proud, and you should all be very proud, of the shift that has occurred in the past three years and how people now see these issues.

This is testimony to the power of your voices and to the weight of the ideas and evidence which you have brought to the table.

Never before has there been such a strong global consensus on the need to change our economic model. The Sustainable Development Goals we agreed at the United Nations are a comprehensive roadmap for our future. And frankly they are the only viable path for a world facing unprecedented resource and economic challenges.

This fourth industrial revolution – which affects every single human being on this planet – is occurring at breakneck speed.

Public opinion has shifted and political opinion has shifted as well. I open newspapers and news websites every morning to see stories about the circular economy, and in particular our fight against plastic waste.

Everybody is on board with the revolution that you are leading.

Even the Queen of England has announced that she is banning single-use plastics on her royal estates!

So that begs the question, what are we doing here today? If everyone agrees with us, are we just going to pat ourselves on the back all day?

Of course not!

We are here to turn good will and good intentions into good actions and good results.

Because that is what our fellow Europeans – and not just Europeans, people worldwide – expect of us.

You know that in December 2015 the Commission presented a Circular Economy Package which proposed an ambitious but still realistic set of measures along the whole product lifecycle.

Just over two years later, we have delivered almost all the initiatives planned, and in the coming year we will put the final pieces on the table. We’ll put them to the European Parliament and the Council.

We have made good progress on the waste legislation that will make Europe’s waste management system the most advanced regional system in the world. The European Parliament and Council have come to a provisional agreement, and we hope that they will conclude their work very soon. So my appeal to you is to support and encourage this rapid conclusion. Because the sooner this legislation is adopted, the sooner you can start planning with certainty for the future. This is what I get back a lot from industry: “Give us the certainty, so we can plan for the future.”

There are other important work streams too, from synergizing our chemicals and waste policies, to financing and research, to awareness raising and better tracking and measurement of the progress we are making in the circular economy.

The European Parliament elections will soon be upon us. We have about a year left to complete this work. So please take the opportunity of today’s gathering to speak with each other about how to move this process forward as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible.

There are several threads to our work, as I have said, but I would like to focus today on plastics – which is one of the most pressing environmental and economic challenges of our times.

Plastic waste is choking our oceans, killing wildlife and threatening our own health. Microplastics are found in the air as well as in our drinking water and in our food.

And the way we produce, use and dispose of plastics today is both a threat and a wasted economic opportunity. So it’s a threat to our health, and it’s a wasted economic opportunity. That’s why we need to do something about it.

Every year European consumers generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, with very low recycling rates. And this means that around 95% of the economic value of plastic packaging is lost to the economy every year. This is waste in more than one sense of the word!

Last month the Commission presented the first ever EU Plastics Strategy to address these challenges. I’m sure you have all studied it closely, but let me just emphasise a couple of important points.

Our Plastics Strategy sets out a new vision for a smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry, with reuse and recycling activities integrated into production chains.

This is a huge opportunity for European industry, and I am so pleased when I hear major economic players embracing what we are doing. It is so much easier when industry and NGOs and the public sector work together than when they are constantly fighting. And we can also count on very strong public support for this idea.

The Strategy addresses the whole value-chain, creates synergies between economic and environmental goals and aims to bring everyone on board. It recognises that the private sector, national, regional, and local authorities and citizens will not only need to be supportive of our overall goals, but will need to work closely together to achieve them and to bring about the new economic models that we need. It’s not a financial challenge, it’s not a scientific challenge or technological challenge. It’s a challenge of organisation, how we get all the stakeholders, everyone involved, every single citizen, to be part of it.

By 2030, all plastics packaging will have to be reusable or recyclable in an economically viable manner. This most probably means that some types of plastic can no longer be on the market because there is hardly an economic case for recycling all the plastics we have today.

Secondly and very importantly, the markets for recycled plastics will have to grow and more products will have to be made of recycled material. This is within our grasp. I have had very encouraging meetings with industry and have seen, for example, that we can make water bottles with 100% recycled content. I see some of those here today. I see no reason why we should not have more products like that.

I very much hope that the industry will respond positively to our recycled content pledging campaign announced in the Plastics Strategy. The deadline is June this year and we are looking forward to receiving ambitious commitments!

Thirdly, we will address single use plastics, which constitute 50% of litter found on EU beaches. The need to limit single use plastics is becoming clearer and clearer by the day. We are aiming to present a legislative proposal on single use plastics by the end of May this year.

I find this one of the most inspiring things by the way; all the time in Europe people going to the beaches and collecting these plastics and taking them away. This is something we do for ourselves, but certainly also for the next generations.

Prevention and substitution are the two keywords. Sustainable alternatives are out there, and they must be taken up, scaled up, and talked up. Several supermarket chains have recently announced that they will go plastic free where alternatives exist. Pub and bar chains have promised to ban plastic straws and replace single use plastics with reusable alternatives. All this is highly encouraging and we hope others will follow.

And let me also add very briefly, as a father, it’s easy to create enthusiasm with your kids when you explain to them that not using straws or using different straws is good for the environment. If you explain to them that something that takes seconds to produce and you use for perhaps five minutes might take five hundred years or more to break down, they will understand and look for alternatives and convince all their friends and their parents to do the same.

Lastly, let me mention the leakage of micro-plastics into the environment. We are taking action here too, and have already started the process to ban intentionally added micro-plastics as well as oxo-plastics which degrade into micro-plastics. We have also launched work to find solutions to unintentionally released micro-plastics, in textiles and other products like tyres.

We need everyone on board to turn these plans into realities. To turn intentions into results, and to scale up.

I know we can count on the NGOs to keep shining a light on the issue, keep pushing us, and help us to raise the public awareness which is so crucial to changing consumer behaviour. And isn’t it exciting to see at what speed public awareness changes about all these things. It’s sort of like climate change revisited: the same dimension, the same enthusiasm.

I am increasingly confident that business will work with us, and amongst themselves. If you can improve the dialogue across the value chain, support the uptake of recycled content, develop and promote existing alternative products, and keep innovating, we will find ways to re-use and recycle more plastic and avoid micro-plastic leakage.

And just a word of caution here. Now that China has taken this decision, we need to be careful when we do all these things that we convince our citizens to be part of it, to do this extra work in selecting waste. And we would undermine the whole process if at the end of the day, after all the selection, everything ends up together in the furnace somewhere. So we really have some urgent work to do. To avoid people becoming discouraged, or even that they feel that they’re not taken seriously. After they’ve done all the selection, if they see everything go into the same furnace at the end of the day this would not be a good development.

Partnerships and dialogue are fundamental because in this case, working against each other will mean paralysis. Only working together, all of us, we will get the results we need.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our demand for natural resources has reached unsustainable proportions. We, policy makers, businesspeople, consumers and citizens have no choice but to look for alternative solutions.

Being prepared to face these challenges, being ready to reap the benefits that these transformations can bring, will require going back to our foundations, rethinking traditional concepts.

You know, there is so much pessimism out there. There is so little hunger for the future, that people are re-creating a past that never was. As an alternative to facing the future that will be. We can be enthusiastic about this, this is something we can do. This is something we can solve. This is something we can create enthusiasm about. This is something we can explain to people, and make people part of.

And that’s why I believe the circular economy is about more than the economy, it’s more about more than just plastics. It’s about creating a positive attitude to the future, it’s about creating a sense that our future can be more prosperous, can be better. That there is a place for everyone in the circular economy. That if Europe leads in this, Europe will also be the first who profits from this. In terms of being the first who makes this transition into an economy that will come about, whether we like it or not. So we can better shape it, we can better work together to make it happen.

And one final question, I’ve got this new thing on, which is called Instagram. I’m told that I need to reach out to younger people. And Instagram seems to help. So I’m now going to take a selfie, standing here, looking at all of you. I think it would be nice if you could wave to the people who follow Instagram!

Thank you.