The Plastic Pathway towards Circularity
It is a little over a year since the EU introduced a landmark directive limiting the production of single-use plastics. This set out a series of targets but allowed member states to introduce their own legislation to meet these goals. The Netherlands and Germany took this next step recently, announcing bans on certain single-use plastic products. The German Cabinet introduced a ban on single-use cutlery and plates, plastic stirring sticks and balloon holders, in addition to polystyrene cups and boxes; this will come into force in July 2021. The next day, the Netherlands outlined their similar legislative package: this targets single-use plastic products such as cotton swabs, crisp bags and cups.
European countries have been leading the fight against single-use plastic for many years: for example, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the UK are all countries were among the first place a ban on single-use plastic bags. This 2019 EU directive seeks to tackle the widespread and damaging nature of plastic waste in the Ocean. The EU Parliament was presented with research suggesting that marine waste costs its economy between €259 and €695 million annually (mainly from impacts on tourism and fishing). A large majority of this ocean waste is plastic, and around 43% comes from just 10 types of single-use plastic.
Upon the directive’s passage, MEP Frédérique Ries (Belgium) said the legislation “will reduce the environmental damage bill by EUR 22 billion – the estimated cost of plastic pollution in Europe until 2030.”
An Uphill journey
Many scientists acknowledge that the ‘banning’ strategy is only the starting point of eliminating our resource-heavy economic model. Studying the ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in California, researchers suggested that following a plastic-bag ban, the sale of plastic garbage bags skyrockets, as does production of paper bags. Paper bags are seen as better as they biodegrade faster, but without regulation on their content (i.e. what percentage contains recycled paper), their production requires mass deforestation.
Another common replacement for plastic bags is cotton totes. However, taking into account a broader range of environmental impacts (including indicators such as water use and eco-system damage), a 2018 Danish study estimates consumers would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag, to make using it better for the environment.
The Question of Coronavirus
The most recent stumbling block on the otherwise popular measures to ban single-use plastic includes impacts of coronavirus: retailers such as Starbucks temporarily suspended the use of personal coffee cups, in fear of the virus living on surfaces. The EU Commission introduced a much broader set of rules declaring war on the ‘throwaway culture’ in early March 2020. This plan goes far beyond plastics; it includes electronics, textiles, vehicles and buildings in its actions. However, since European countries began to feel the grave impacts of coronavirus and its resultant lockdowns, their priorities have been diverted.
Recently, the EUPC, a leading trade association for plastics manufacturers, called on member states to halt the implementation of ‘non-essential’ directives banning single-use plastics for the next twelve months, so that the industry can stabilise. They believe the EU should prioritise ‘public-health’ and hygiene of goods over the concern of waste, and the ban on single-use plastics renders this difficult.
For now, these calls have been ignored. Vivian Loonela, the EU Commission spokesperson for environmental matters, re-stated the EU’s commitment to March’s plans; “[as] many essential economic activities, including waste management, are under pressure, it is even more important to continue the overall efforts to reduce waste”. Exceptions may be made for medical waste, including PPE such as disposable face masks.
The Next Steps
Scientists and policymakers agree that for the European economy to become truly circular, it needs to invest in recycling facilities, and heighten R&D on biodegradable plastics. Moreover, the large disparities between EU members’ capacity to manage plastic waste must also be addressed. While countries like Germany and the Netherlands already recycle or recover the energy from almost all of their plastic waste, countries including Romania, Poland and Greece still send more than of it 40% to landfill. Innovative policy proposals have helped countries like the Netherlands achieve these higher rates; its residents only pay for how much waste they dispose of, and not for their recycling (incentivising citizens to produce less waste and recycle more).
Most importantly, a report published by PlasticsEurope argued that the only involvement of the entire plastics value chain – from plastics producers and converters to brand owners, and consumers to waste management companies – will create true circularity. Veltha endorses this view; we believe innovations in policy and research must be combined to create a circular economy. While the COVID-19 crisis will test the ability and willingness of governments’ to implement ‘circular’ plastic policies, the urgency to create a more sustainable society is only going to gain momentum. The ban on single-use plastics is a strong beginning, but the first of many steps towards a sustainable society.