Earlier this month, the European Commission published a proposal to reduce the 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste that the continent generates. It targets 10 single-use products including cutlery, straws, stirrers, and cotton buds, which are the most common plastic items found on Europe’s beaches and in the seas. In addition to discarded fishing gear and plastic bottles, these items account for 70 percent of all marine litter. Perhaps most alarming is the fact that plastic litter, which accumulates in the world’s oceans, is directly affecting our food supply.
Limiting plastic waste and developing plastic replacements could push Europe closer to its broader goal of a more sustainable, circular economy, where resources are used as long as possible to extract their maximum value, then recovered and regenerated. The success of 2015 legislation regarding plastic bags provides a framework – and hope – for the plan.
To ensure lasting results, the Commission’s proposal outlines different tactics for varying products. Single-use plastics with available and affordable alternatives, like plates and cutlery, will be banned from the market right away. For plastic products without straightforward alternatives, the focus will be limiting use while replacements are developed. Member states can set national reduction targets or enact taxes to push the transition along.
The legislation goes beyond banning and limiting plastic products, though. The EC will shift waste management and clean-up responsibility to the plastic producers themselves. This includes footing the bill, though they can earn financial incentives for developing more sustainable alternatives to these products. The proposal also requires that EU states collect 90 percent of single-use plastic bottles by 2025 through new recycling programs and deposit refund schemes.
Leaders also intend to raise awareness about plastic. Products like sanitary towels and balloons will soon have standardised labels to indicate how they should be disposed and how the impact the environment. The proposal also stipulates that member states educate their citizens about litter and waste. An EU-wide awareness-raising campaign that highlights the individual’s role in combatting plastic pollution is already underway. Kicked off on World Environment Day this month, it addresses all Europeans, with special focus on young adults in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Spain.
By 2030, when the rules are fully implemented, the Commission expects to save consumers €6.5 billion per year, create 30,000 jobs, and avoid €22 billion in environmental damage and cleanup costs. It would also help EU countries reach climate commitments, industrial policy objectives, and UN Sustainable Development Goals. Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen points out the biggest win, though: “products that the world will demand for decades to come.”
Just this month, the UN Environment Programme applauded similar waste management efforts underway in countries like Italy, France, and the Netherlands. In fact, the latest UN Environment report, Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability, found that bans and levies are some of the “most effective” steps global leaders can take to beat pollution. Corporations like McDonalds, Starbucks, and Ikea have already started testing plastic alternatives, citing their own support for a greener world and stressing the need to collaborate and nurture entrepreneurship as we switch to more sustainable practices.
However, while the proposal is good for the environment, plastic manufacturers warn that bans are not a realistic solution and that alternatives are not always more sustainable. PlasticsEurope said the scheme was commendable, but that it doesn’t tackle the real problem: poor waste management infrastructure and rampant littering.
The European Parliament and all EU member states need to approve the proposal before it goes into effect. Leaders hope to pass the proposal within a year, before European elections in May 2019. If approved, bans would come into effect two years later. It could take up to five years for all of the regulations to begin. Vice President Katainen urges that plastics can be useful, but “we need to use it more responsibly.”
These measures present an opportunity for Europe to lead the way in environmental sustainability at the global level. Beyond a positive image and clean conscience, the Commission hopes it will put Europe at the forefront of new technologies that can stimulate the economy. Equipped with answers and improved options, the EU could then use its strong environmental position to influence other nations.