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An ambitious yet sensible approach to reduce single-use plastics

Submitted by on 12 Apr 2018 – 15:58

The European Commission launched its first-ever ground-up, holistic strategy to deal with the fact that plastics are now everywhere: in our air, lungs, food, and sea. Julie Girling MEP presents her take on the ambitious strategy to reduce single-use plastics

Europe generates nearly 26 million tonnes of plastic waste a year – and only 30 percent gets recycled. These are the figures to keep at the front of our minds as we discuss the future of a substance that changed our lives but now haunts our conscience.

The January Strasbourg session in the European Parliament saw the launch of the long-awaited plastics strategy from the European Commission, a commitment made in the December 2015 EU action plan for a circular economy.

It has a simple aim – to reduce waste and keep the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible. It addresses recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances in plastics and the reduction of marine litter.

It also offers options to address the interface between chemical-product and waste legislation, as well as a proposed directive on port reception facilities for the delivery of waste from ships.

The EU has always been a world leader when it comes to progressive and forward-thinking environmental policy and this new strategy is no exception.

While 1.5 million EU citizens are employed in manufacturing all those tonnes of plastic, the Commission reckons we suffer an economic loss of €100 billion per year for plastic packaging alone.

In order to tackle this growing problem, the EU has announced an ambitious yet sensible target to reduce single-use plastics and will produce a proposal on how to deal with them later this year.

Other issues touched upon include the contribution of plastics production and disposal to climate change – approximately 400 million tonne of CO2 in the atmosphere every year – as well as another hot topic in recent years and an area of particular interest to me, the reduction in the use of microplastics. Between 150,000 and 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste enter EU oceans every year, and between 75,000 and 300,000 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment every year in the EU.

The dangers of plastics to marine life have been evident for decades but not all are as aware of the threat posed by microplastics that are so small that they can build up in every level of the food chain, with devastating effects on the ecosystem. These are seen most clearly in our oceans but the detrimental effects of microplastics on humans are still not clear. The proposal from the Commission goes some way towards protecting EU citizens from the negative effects of microplastics on human health.

Environmental policies have until very recently been seen as expensive and non-essential. However, increasing news coverage of the devastating impact plastics is having on the environment, and the accelerated pace at which it is affecting our everyday surroundings, has brought the conversation back to the forefront of public debate.

We can no longer ignore the effects when we see the increasingly extreme weather conditions occurring all across Europe. When helping launch the plastics strategy, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans made the case: “many of you have children, like I do. If you explain that a plastic straw which took five seconds to make will be used for five minutes, and will last for 500 years, children won’t use it anymore”.

While taking the Commissioner’s point I feel that economic, not emotional, arguments are a better way of convincing the general public. This was the approach taken by Vice President Jyrki Katainen, who commented on how there should be interest in the estimated global loss of €100 billion in plastics packaging each year.

Furthermore, the Commission believes that creating a new smart and sustainable plastic industry can bring growth and new jobs, while cutting dependence to imported fossil fuel and that new recycling schemes and infrastructure could lead to the creation of 200,000 jobs across Europe by 2030.

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I was pleased that the idea of a plastics tax, proposed by Commissioner Günther Oettinger, was not included in the plastics strategy. While the idea is not without its merits in theory, I believe this is something that should be decided at a member state level. Such a move from the Commission could have backfired badly.

For now, we must wait a little longer to see how the Commission proposes to meet its ambitious targets. At this stage, the only new legislative proposal is for a directive on tackling discharges on waste from ships into the marine environment.

Other legislation is foreseen, but it will be subject to separate impact assessments and consultation in line with better regulation principles. Expected proposals include restricting the use of oxo-plastics in the EU; ensuring plastic packaging can be reused or recycled in a cost-effective manner, with harmonised rules on defining and labelling compostable and biodegradable plastics; and quality standards for sorted plastics waste and recycled plastics.

The Commission will also bring forward new measures under existing legislation including restricting the intentional addition of microplastics to products via the REACH Regulation, best available techniques to limit plastic loss from aquaculture and new eco-design measures to support the recyclability of plastics.

We can also expect new guidance documents, including those on improving the separate collection and sorting of plastics waste and eco-modulation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

It has taken time, but the EU is now ready to respond to the urgency of the plastics issue.