How Europe got tough on plastic

It is hard to imagine a world without plastic. Endlessly adaptable, it is found in everything from chairs to cars, from bottles to bags, and from toys to the computer or smartphone that you are doubtless using to read this article. But this everyday miracle comes with a price. If improperly managed, plastic waste can linger in the environment, and ultimately enter the food chain. So, how can we keep benefiting from plastic, while cutting its downsides?

The European Union has been slowly addressing the problem of plastic waste with various policies, regulations and other measures. On January 16 the European Commission went further than ever with a new strategy that aims to make all plastic packaging and 55% of all plastic reusable or recyclable by the year 2030.

The proposals call for harmonised rules on defining and labelling compostable and biodegradable plastics, and quality standards for sorted plastics waste and recycled plastics. “If we don’t change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050,” said Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans. “Single-use plastics…take five seconds to produce, you use it for five minutes and it takes 500 years to break down again,” he said.

The strategy calls for changes in product design, production, use and recycling of what the has been called the most successful material on the market. While the only legislative proposal to accompany the strategy is related to discharges of waste from ships, three issues have had the most political visibility:

  • single-use plastic products, which are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled,
  • OXO-biodegradable plastics, which may not biodegrade entirely but rather fragment into small pieces,
  • micro-plastics, which are small pieces of plastic formed from the breakdown of large plastic waste, the wear and tear from use of plastic products or intentionally produced at this size (less than 5mm long) and which may be harmful.

The Plastics Strategy was published a few months after China said it would ban the import of foreign recyclable materials, a decision that could mean plastic waste piling up in Europe. And it came after ministers from more than 200 countries pledged at a United Nations environment summit in Kenya last December to completely stop plastic waste from entering the oceans.

Europe produces 26 million tonnes of plastic waste annually but less than 30% of it is currently recycled. New rules should improve the recyclability of plastics used on the market and increase the demand for recycled plastic content, making the sector profitable. This should mean more plastic being collected, and more recycling facilities being be set up, alongside a standardised system to separate collection and sorting of waste across the EU. All this comes with a Commission pledge to invest €350 million in plastics research, and providing more public drinking water dispensers to reduce the use of single-use bottles.

In recent months, hundreds of businesses, NGOs and industry groups have made voluntary pledges on plastics, from shunning OXO plastics to boosting the uptake of recycled content, sometimes with specific reference to the Commission plans. While the media is granting significant airspace to these stories, it is as yet unclear how many and which will be formally considered as pledges under the auspices of the Plastics Strategy. By October 2018, the Commission will decide whether the pledges are working, or if it should propose new measures, such as levying taxes and modernizing plastics production to kick-start a behaviour change.

Some NGO critics are concerned that the Commission is too tame about slashing plastic waste and changing habits. But most observers see it as a decisive step in the war on waste.

In some respects, demands in the strategy reflect how the plastics industry has faced the perfect storm of EU political pressure for action in the face of a challenge which comprises both a consumer behaviour and a member state area of competence. Consumer behaviour is the hardest of all communications challenges and member states continue to be criticised for lack of ambition when it comes to action on waste.

There will be additional regulatory challenges for businesses navigating these demands as there are no signs that political pressure for action will ease. Governments and businesses will equally need to adjust as the ideas in the plastics strategy are translated into policy and regulation.

The stakeholder pledges already show that the plastic strategy is one of the major achievements of Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission. Its vision and its actions will drive the discussion and create opportunities for engagement with Brussels decision-makers for many years to come. Whether it leads to legislation or not, it heralds a transformation in our relationship with the miracle material.

Authors: Deborah Cwajgenbaum & Roland Moore

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