Proposals for a more effective European Plastics Strategy

27. March 2018

by Kawthar Karout

garbage 2According to a new Ellen MacArthur Foundation report launched at the World Economic Forum, there is going to be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Plastic production has increasing all over the world: in 2014 alone 311 million tonnes of plastic was produced, which represents a twentyfold increase since 1964. (1) This includes the production of plastic packaging material, only 5% of which is recycled and retained in the economy according to the European Commission. The rest is lost after first-time use, costing the Union between and the European Commission has put this problem on the agenda. In January 2018, the Commission released for the first time ever an EU-wide plastics strategy with the aim of making all plastic packages recyclable by 2030 and curbing the utilisation of single-use plastics like coffee cups, stirrers, drinking straws, water bottles and takeaway packages. The strategy also aims to increase the current recycling rate from 30% to 70%.  According to the Commission, this could lead to the creation of about 200,000 new jobs in the recycling and sorting industries. (2)

Although this strategy seems a serious attempt to try and tackle the problem of plastics, I believe that there are some aspects that the European Commission forgot about which would help decrease the use of plastics in Europe and thereby its impact on the human health and the environment.

Raise awareness

“If children knew what the effects are of using single-use plastic straws for drinking sodas, or whatever, they might reconsider and use paper straws or no straws at all’’ said the vice-president of the Commission Frans Timmermans when speaking to the Guardian and other European newspapers. (3)

The idea is that, if people are aware of the effects and the consequences of using plastics, people will limit their use. This is an aspect that the strategy fails to mention: raising awareness through increasing the funds of organisations that work to curb the use of plastic or maybe adding it to school curriculum could instead represent a viable solution. Sweden, for instance, has imposed a new policy that forces all suppliers and purchasers to report the amount of plastic bags they have produced or bought to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket). The policy also ensures that all retailers inform their customers about the negative effects of using plastic bags. (4) This encouraged some fashion retailers, including H&M, Lindex and KappAhl, to launch the concept ‘One Bag Habit’: members of this campaign charge an extra amount when consumers ask for plastic bags as well as inform them about plastic bags’ negative environmental impacts. (5)  Today, thanks to this measure, only 30% of the customers in Sweden buy plastic bags, while 70% choose to reuse old plastic bags.(6)

Ban microplastics

Although outright banning plastic bags might not be the right, a ban of microplastics would already be very useful to make sure that both people´s health and the environment are protected. Microplastics, which are fragments of plastic measuring 5 millimetres or less, represent the most common type of marine pollution. Researchers have found it in Swedish blue mussels, Norwegian lobster, prawns and cod.(7) Products such as exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste contain microplastics. That is why the Swedish and the English governments have decided to ban cosmetic and personal care products that contain microplastics. The ban will apply in both countries from 1 July 2018.(7)(8)
In the Commission’s Plastics Strategy, two types of microplastics are mentioned: those that are used intentionally in some products in order to accomplish a certain function ( such as cosmetics), and those that are unintentionally created, meaning they are generated when larger plastic pieces break down. The strategy will tackle this issue by decreasing the intentional usage of microplastics and labelling the products that unintentionally leads to the creation of microplastics. (2) I believe instead that the total ban of the intentionally used microplastics could be a better solution to reduce its effects, preventing plastic from being flushed into the oceans in the first place.  A decrease means that tonnes of microplastics will still be used and released into the global ecosystem.

The new Plastics Strategy aims to improve the workings of the circular economy, which means that plastic materials will be reused and recycled, rather than thrown away. But that still means that tonnes of plastics are being wasted and released into the oceans. Fish and other marine creatures are in danger and serious actions should be taken. The new Plastics Strategy is a start but is it enough? Probably not! People need to understand and realise that they are responsible for the release of plastics in the ocean and sometimes tougher measures (e.g. microplastic bans) should be taken to save the Earth… Our Earth.