Less plastic, more awareness: the European Union’s challenge

The European Union has made a bold decision in banning certain single-use plastic products. But this is just the first step in a long journey.

Sardinia’s white sandy coves and Norway’s rugged fjords have one thing in common. They’re both threatened by one of the most severe environmental emergencies of our time: plastic pollution. Every year between 150,000 and 500,000 tonnes of plastic end up in Europe’s seas, with devastating consequences on ecosystems and the economy. It is estimated that environmental costs will reach 22 billion euros by 2030. Meanwhile, between 75,000 and 300,000 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment every year, either directly or due to larger waste breaking down.

This issue has become one of the top priorities for the European Parliament, which is tackling pollution both upstream – aiming to reduce plastic use (and, therefore, waste) – and downstream, by aiming to increase recycling. The initiatives being adopted are destined to revolutionise our habits. Yet a top-down approach is unlikely to succeed on its own as it is essential that citizens are informed, attentive and willing to get involved.

microplastics
Plastic fragments collected from the sea © Ingimage

Less single-use plastic thanks to the European Parliament

Firstly, plastic use must be limited to those cases where it is really the best (or only) possible option. Currently, the lion’s share of the market is taken up by packaging, which accounts for 40 per cent of European plastic production. A further 22 per cent is used in furniture and household goods, 20 per cent in construction and building materials, and 9 per cent for cars and trucks. Finally, 6 per cent is used in electrical and electronic appliances.

“We have to change our approach. We can’t manufacture things without thinking about its effects. Rather, we must consider the consequences and rework the product. A classic example are straws, which have always been made of plastic, but we’ve now decided that they can be made from paper, glass, bamboo and metal. The materials already existed, we just never considered them,” claims Lucia Vuolo, an MEP with the Identity and Democracy group.

On this front, the European Parliament has shown its resolution. First, it introduced strict limitations on the use of plastic carrier bags which, since 2018, can no longer be provided free of charge. It then asked the Commission to ban microplastics from being used in cosmetics, although this process will be lengthy because the proposal must be examined by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) first. Subsequently, the European Parliament approved the directive that will ban single-use plastic cutlery, plates and balloon sticks starting from July this year – objects whose lifespan only lasts a few minutes, but which pollute the environment for centuries.

Pasquale, nicknamed “plastic-free grandfather”, knows about this. The 94-year-old from the Italian region of Abruzzo spends his summers collecting plastic bottles and other waste from local beaches. “Our planet is beautiful, it’s enchanting. We’re the ones misbehaving,” he remarks.

A plastic pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has added to the difficulties of an already complex issue. Over the past year even the most fervent environmentalists have resigned to the widespread adoption of single-use masks, gloves and bags to avoid the spread of infection. In addition, restrictions on movement have led to a huge surge in online shopping for groceries, consumer goods (including masks) and takeaway food: products that are often wrapped in plastic packaging. “To understand the complexity of the problem, it’s enough to look around. Plastic is everywhere,” Vuolo says.

Faced with this crisis, the European Parliament has proposed to the Commission to reduce packaging (including takeaway food containers), improve recyclability, reduce packaging’s complexity as much as possible, and promote reuse. Eleonora Evi, an MEP in the Greens-European Free Alliance group, told LifeGate about these efforts. Evi and Vuolo are both part of ENVI, the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.

single-use masks
Single-use masks have a serious environmental impact © Ingimage

Virgin and recycled plastic, the numbers don’t add up

In those cases where plastic use can’t be avoided, it is preferable to choose recycled plastics rather than fossil fuel-based ones. The European Parliament has made moves in this direction, asking the Commission to establish quality standards for recycled plastic and impose its use for certain types of products. Essentially, the recycled plastics market needs a boost: only 6 per cent of plastic on the European market is made from recycled materials.

This principle, however logical, clashes with economic trends. The halt on travel in 2020 led oil prices to collapse and demand for plastic soared as its price hit rock-bottom. Since the onset of Covid-19, the production cost of a bottle made from recycled plastic is 83-93 per cent higher than using virgin raw materials. This data is the result of research by the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS) cited by Reuters. Therefore, it come as no surprise that recycling operators surveyed by the UK press agency reported a 20 per cent decrease in their business volume in Europe.

Over the next five years, the world’s fossil fuel giants plan to spend some 400 billion US dollars on creating production plants for virgin plastic raw materials, a Carbon Tracker study reveals. Compare this to the somewhat less impressive 2 billion dollars in spending planned to reduce waste. This is far from ideal, considering that manufacturing four bottles (barely significant even if we consider just individual consumption) involves greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a car for over 1.5 kilometres.

How to get out of this mess? Evi suggests two ways: eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and supporting the secondary raw materials market through targeted tax incentives. Widening the scope further, the hope is to “introduce environmental taxation that promotes clean products and penalises poor performers”; essentially, a sort of “green VAT, because for as long as we keep incentivising fossil fuels, the production of virgin plastic will always have a competitive advantage over its recycled equivalent”. Vuolo suggests working with sector operators without adding further costs for them.

We need to recycle more, all over Europe

The high cost of recycled plastic is also due to the enormous amount of raw materials needed to produce it. Therefore, it follows that by increasing the amount of materials being recycled, costs fall and the market strengthens. In fact, the European Parliament also aims to revise the so-called “essential requirements” for plastic packaging, ensuring it all becomes reusable or recyclable by 2030.

There is still a lot of work to be done on this aspect too. Every year, EU citizens generate 26 million tonnes of plastic waste: 39 per cent is incinerated, 31 per cent is sent to landfill and only 30 per cent is collected for recycling. This figure varies significantly from country to country: while Latvia recycles over 80 per cent of its plastic, neighbouring Estonia doesn’t even make it to 30 per cent, on a par with France and Finland. Where recycling infrastructure is missing, the only solution is to send waste abroad. In Europe, this happens in 50 per cent of cases.

In October 2020, after examining relevant data, the European Court of Auditors claimed that it is unlikely that the Union will be able to recycle half of plastic packaging by 2025 and 55 per cent by 2030, targets set by the Commission in 2018. Paradoxically, among all the kinds of packaging, plastic containers – such as bottles or yoghurt pots – have the lowest recycling rate, barely surpassing 40 per cent.

Imballaggi in plastica
Approximately 60 per cent of plastic is used for packaging, for items such as bottles and yoghurt pots. However, only 40 per cent is recycled © Pixabay

Such a low recycling rate is unquestionably a failure. From an economic standpoint firstly, because 95 per cent of the value of packaging materials is lost after its first use, and from an environmental standpoint too, because the production and incineration of plastic emit enormous amounts of CO2 (some 400 million tonnes per year globally). Resources from the Next Generation EU fund could be used in favour of positive change, Evi suggests, if managed appropriately by individual member states through recovery and resilience plans.

“We must, however, avoid falling back into the logic of building more facilities and thinking everything gets recycled. That is not how it works,” Evi points out. “After all, recycling is the ideal way to close the circle, but it can’t and shouldn’t be an excuse to shy away from our responsibility to drastically reduce the amount of waste we generate”.

We can devise the most advanced technologies and invest millions in new recycling plants, but what will really make a difference is for everyone, both businesses and individuals, to change their mindset.

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