EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late?

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.

The EU adopted its first-ever European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy on January 16.

The goal of the new strategy is to “transform the way plastic products are designed, used, produced and recycled in the EU. Better design of plastic products, higher plastic waste recycling rates, more and better quality recyclates will help boosting the market for recycled plastics. It will deliver greater added value for a more competitive, resilient plastics industry,” according to the summary found at European Strategy for Plastics. 

Under the plan, all plastic packaging on the EU market must either be reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030, half of all plastics waste for all applications should be recycled, again by 2030, consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced, and use of microplastics restricted.  In this post, I will focus on critiquing the general approach, rather than on minutiae outlined in the overall strategy document.

These moves may seem to be a step in the right direction– especially compared to the situation in the US, where the fracking boom has caused major fossil fuel companies to ramp up their future plans for plastics production, as I discussed in this previous post, Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis.

The EU measures fall short of the magnitude of the plastics crisis, however. And in that they provide the appearance that the EU is confronting the problem, they may actually do more harm than good.

My general problem with the EU approach is that I don’t want to see “a more competitive, resilient plastics industry.” What’s instead necessary is a comprehensive rethink of the use of plastics, and a focus on eliminating outright as much as possible, as soon as possible.

The UK has taken the lead in one area, and has already banned the production of microplastics from 1 January (and their sale, from 30 June), according to this Chemical Watch account, UK microbeads ban enters into force. Whereas in the eye of this observer, the EU is relying on waffle in this area:

Microplastics intentionally added to products represent a relatively small proportion of all those in the sea. However, since they are relatively easy to prevent and in response to public concern, several countries have already taken action to restrict their use, while the cosmetic industry has also taken voluntary action. Bans are under consideration or planned in several Member States and this may lead to fragmentation in the single market. In line with the REACH procedures for restricting substances that pose a risk to the environment or health, the Commission has therefore started the process to restrict the use of intentionally added microplastics, by requesting the European Chemicals Agency to review the scientific basis for taking regulatory action at EU level. 

More research is needed to improve our understanding of the sources and impacts of microplastics, including their effects on the environment and health, and to develop innovative solutions to prevent their dissemination (European Strategy Report, section 4.2)

Microplastics are only one part of the problem. And as laudable as the UK’s outright ban is, for other areas, the UK government thinks that martial rhetoric can substitute for focused action (although I understand that Prime Minister Teresa May has rather a lot on her plate at the moment, which I expect is made of china rather than plastic.)

Last week, she declared war on plastics packaging.  But it’s a war to which she assigns no sense of urgency, allowing 25 years to meet that goal, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes in today’s Guardian, In its own ‘war on plastic’, the UK government is a deserter.:

And now, not tomorrow, is the time to do so. UK supermarkets generate 1m tonnes of plastic packaging every year, which amounts to more than a quarter of the country’s entire plastic usage. Globally, just 9% of plastics is recycled, with 72% ending up in landfill or the sea. From the sea it gets everywhere, the bottom of the deepest ocean, Arctic ice floes, table salt, tap water, beer and the stomachs of seabirds, whales, turtles and humans.

Contrast that to the approach taken by supermarket chain Iceland, which has promised to eliminate plastic packaging its own branded products within five years, replacing it with paper and pulp trays, as The Guardian reports in Iceland supermarket vows to eliminate plastic on all own-branded products. Iceland has already eliminated plastic straws from its own label range and will soon introduce paper-based food trays for new food products. Iceland surveyed 5000 of its customers and found 80% supported its plastics-free initiative. Iceland’s not hiding behind a recycling pledge, but moving eliminate its use of plastics outright.

Yet as Fearnley-Whittingstall notes, most UK supermarkets are not grasping the plastics nettle:

And yet most supermarkets are still keeping their heads down and hoping the plastic storm blows over while bringing out pre-chopped onions and “cauliflower steaks” perched on plastic trays and wrapped in even more avoidable plastic. A quarter-of-a-century ambition will have had retailers sighing with relief: it’s a problem for their chief executives’ successors’ successors. They can feel safe in shelving any plans for investing, researching or trying out alternatives to plastic, let alone going as far as actually getting rid of the stuff.

Voluntary Schemes and Their Limitations

Several companies are stepping up to to confront the plastics crisis.  And I concede that some of these actions are a clear improvement on the plastics status quo, despite the wider concerns I harbor about the products these companies peddle. As reported today in Eco-Business, Evian joins big brands in race to bin plastics:

Evian became the latest big brand to turn its back on polluting plastics on Thursday, pledging to make its water bottles from recycled materials by 2025.

It joined British supermarket Iceland, coffee chain Costa and fast-food giant McDonald’s, which have all announced similar decisions in the last month.

Evian, the luxury mineral water brand owned by Danone, the world’s third-largest bottled water company, said it would redesign its packaging, accelerate recycling and recover plastic waste from nature.

The catch here is the emphasis on recycling, rather than replacement with a sustainable alternative. In this respect, McDonald’s seems to have struck a better balance (note that I’m just considering packaging here– not all the other respects in which McDonald’s produces ecologically disastrous and unhealthy products). How much of a better balance remains to be seen, if the company continues to over-package its products– even if such packaging is sustainably sourced. Quoting again from Eco-Business:

The world’s biggest restaurant chain McDonald’s Corp said on Tuesday it would switch to environmentally friendly packaging materials and offer recycling in all its restaurants.

McDonald’s said it aims to get all its packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025, with a preference for products from responsibly managed forests.

The company will also make recycling available in all restaurants by 2025, up from about 10 percent, and eliminate foam packaging from its global supply chain by year-end.

“Our customers have told us that packaging waste is the top environmental issue they would like us to address,” said Francesca DeBiase, McDonald’s chief supply chain and sustainability officer, in a statement.

And unfortunately, even if these limited voluntary schemes are better than the status quo, alone they won’t take us where we need to go. This is an area in which governments must step in, regulate firmly, comprehensively, and soon. And the balance should be stuck on eliminating as much plastics production as possible, rather than relying on the recycling fairy or designing policy to the competitiveness of the recycling industry. As Fearnley-Whittingstall recognizes:

Retired retail moguls wrote to the Financial Times last month to say that recycling plastic is not enough – “it is therefore essential that retailers and packaging manufacturers work together to turn off the tap of throwaway packaging”. Easy to say when all you’re managing is your pension fund, but they are right: it is essential. And Iceland is showing that what is essential is also possible.

Industry Support for EU Plan

One tell that the EU plan isn’t all it can be is the strong industry support it’s received. Consider this encomium published in Waste Management World, EU Strategy on Plastics Welcomed by European Plastics Converters and notice the emphasis on growth and innovation:

The Europe-wide strategy on plastics adopted earlier this week as part of the transition towards a more circular economy has been welcomed by trade body, European Plastics Converters (EuPC).

According to the Commission it will protect the environment from plastic pollution whilst fostering growth and innovation, turning a challenge into a positive agenda for the Future of Europe.

Now, I understand that one cannot ban all plastics outright, overnight. But it appears to me that the time frame for the measures proposed is not nearly ambitious enough, the emphasis on voluntary industry measures is one that often ends in tears as they can easily be sidestepped or eliminated, and that there is undue emphasis on circularity and promoting a competitive recycling industry rather than drastically shearing the production and use of plastics outright.

More from the Waste Management World account:

EuPC said that it fully supports the vision to create a more prosperous, sustainable and circular plastics economy in Europe.

“Real industrial transformation can only be achieved through joint action by all stakeholders from the entire plastics value chain and with the support of authorities and consumers alike,” commented Alexandre Dangis, EuPC Managing Director.

In particular, EuPC said that it appreciates the recognition of the added value of plastics in the strategy and the need to rethink certain aspects from a broader point view, where all actors have a role to play in shaping the vision.

The reference of value chain cooperation and the role of the industry in tackling voluntarily some issues is welcome and EuPC and its members have accepted their responsibility through the approval of the framework of voluntary commitments.

“Better waste collection, sorting and treatment is crucial to improve the quality of recycled plastics materials (rPM) and to boost the uptake of rPM by converters. A better waste management, the elimination of the landfilling of plastics waste and educated consumers are the most important factors to reduce littering and environmental pollution,” concluded Dangis.

Bottom Line: Glass Half Empty, or Half Full?

The EU’s broader circular economy initiative seemed to signal a new approach to the problem of waste management. Unfortunately, the plastics strategy is a disappointment, relying too much on recycling rather than waste elimination and even within this narrow framework, endorsing all too feeble goals.

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  1. Clive

    In food packaging here in the U.K. (not sure about elsewhere as I don’t shop often enough in real-world stores outside this country to comment accurately) the vast majority of plastic which is used is purely for marketing and merchandising reasons — to help give the product “shelf appeal”. For most packaged food, a simple cardboard container would be perfectly adequate. That is if any packaging is needed at all.

    The worst offenders are where you have a predominately cardboard pack, but a clear plastic window is cut into the cardboard. This tends to create “mixed material” waste — certainly this can’t be recycled where I live (although waste recycling facilities are starting to come online in other areas which can handle this — but I suspect it is quite energy intensive).

    There are so many quick wins and low hanging fruit available in tackling this problem. And I don’t just mean polythene wrapped bags of bananas.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I’d like to see more emphasis on not packaging things unnecessarily in the first instance, rather than on recycling superfluous packaging. The other virtue of not prepackaging anything is that one can buy what one needs, rather than being forced to choose a set increment. Buying what you need also helps reduce food waste, which is another aspect of the more general waste problem.

      1. wilroncanada

        Thanks Jerri-Lynn
        I view most blister packaging, ostensibly in order to prevent theft, as a device to (supposedly) increase ‘productivity’, and profit, by replacing employees. At all levels, importation, wholesale, retail, the business marks up the product, including all the packaging, at the same percentage as before. A win for businesses, a loss for consumers and the environment.

  2. susan the other

    Certainly one of the reasons we have microplastics in our food and water is our habit of washing synthetic fabrics and the waste water goes into the system carrying micro bits of polyester, and high-tech fabrics. All fabrics/textiles are friable and pollute our water and soil. Seems like recycling itself might distribute these microscopics too. The word we need to use is “sequester”. Turn this pollution of all the tiny particles in the environment into bigger chunks of plastic that can be used in some way that prevents shedding. And have a moratorium of making any new unnecessary plastic products.

  3. paul

    One of my favourite EU incoherences is the tobacco products directive, which dictated that a wildly successful grassroots initiative ( e-cigarettes-disclosure: used personally for 6 years) made available to the general public should be bureaucratised out of existence.

    One of the strictures was that the liquids could only be dispensed in 10ml bottles:

    To explain how absurd this is, if a vaper were to use 5ml of liquid per day, it equates to around 1,800ml over a year. If buying in 100ml size bottles, the packaging only extends to 18 bottles per annum.

    Under TPD regulations, though, the number of plastic bottles required increases ten-fold to 180. Again, for no reason whatsoever; the very definition of “avoidable”.

    Multiply those 160 odd extra bottles by the nearly 3 million vapers in the UK according to the most recent surveys, and that equates to a huge amount of plastic waste which is entirely unnecessary.

    The product that has produced the lowest smoking rates in europe but banned by the commission; SNUS, is up in the EU court just now

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