Europe’s response to plastic issues

Over the past fifty years, global production of plastic has multiplied by twenty, and so has its waste. Since you began to read these words, between one and a half and four kilogrammes of plastic waste has ended up in the oceans, representing approximately between five and thirteen million tonnes of plastic leakage every year. At this speed, scientists say that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans. In addition to obvious environmental issues, this could also have an impact on human health. For example, microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic smaller than five millimetres, have been found in the air, drinking water, fish, salt, and honey. By 2030, environmental damages could be valued at twenty-two billion euros.

European citizens generate around twenty-six million tonnes of plastic waste every year. An average of thirty percent of this amount is recycled (this number varies a lot across European countries); the rest is either incinerated or landfilled. A substantial share is sent to third countries to be treated, where different standards apply. Most of this share is shipped to China, a situation that may soon end as China has now banned certain types of foreign plastic waste. Although incineration can be a tempting alternative to landfill, it produces a high amount of CO2 and destroys raw materials after a very short lifespan. On top of the dependence on fuel extraction for production, plastic’s environmental footprint is significant and growing; in fact, its production is expected to double over the next twenty years. What happens with traditional plastic also applies to plastic labelled as biodegradable. The latter actually degrades under very specific conditions that may not be easily met in natural environments and therefore still causes degradations. If other alternatives are available, the share they occupy in the market remains modest. For example, bio-based plastic, plastic made out of carbon dioxide or methane have a lower impact on the environment. Even though they have the same features as traditional plastic, they struggle to expand and to replace it.

Europe is now responding to this plastic crisis by taking several measures, particularly by banning the ten single-use plastics products most frequently found on European beaches and in lost fishing gears, which together account for seventy percent of marine litter. Single-use plastic products such as cigarette butts, balloon sticks, plastic bags, straws, cutlery, and so on, are often used away from home and are thus very difficult to recycle. The Members of the European Commission (MECs) have announced that by 2021, all these products will have to be replaced by non-plastic alternatives. Some of them will be banned immediately since alternatives are already available. MECs also introduced the so-called producer responsibility strategy: producers of cigarette filters, wrappers, and other plastic products will have the obligation to support the waste management cost of these items.

As sixty percent of plastic waste comes from packaging, the European Commission published a report on the “Strategy for plastic in a circular economy”. Recyclable or reusable plastic is currently meeting six percent of the total plastic demand; the objective for 2030 set in the report is a hundred percent of plastic packaging composed of this particular type of plastic. That way, a significant amount of waste could be avoided as the raw material could be reused. However, this policy implies a proper waste collection and investment in recycling capacities. Lately, product brands and manufacturers have been reluctant to use recycled plastic because they fear that it could not meet their needs of constant quality, high-volume, and reliable plastic. Therefore, this sector has suffered from uncertain outlets and low profitability. Moreover, the success of such a measure rests upon the goodwill of all the actors of the plastic chain, as mostly non-coercive actions have been announced.

The creation of a virtuous circle for plastic is one solution that Europe chose to implement. In order to limit plastic pollution, would it not be easier to eliminate the problem at the root by directly banning any plastic packaging, which is the main source of plastic waste? However, consumers and brands might not be ready yet for such a drastic step, as this implies making an effort or giving up on a considerable marketing tool.

by Noémie Martin


*Featured image: A plastic-throwing dragon was set up in front of the European Commission by the NGO Rethink Plastic.

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