By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The European Parliament late last month overwhelmingly approved a plan to ban certain types of single-use plastic, recycle others, and make producing companies more accountable for what happens to such waste. The European Council may approve this measure as soon as this month, with the directive becoming law by the end of this year, according to the Guardian, in European parliament approves sweeping ban on single-use plastics.
The Independent’s account foreshadows possible problems with implementing the directive in European Parliament votes to ban single-use plastics in bid to tackle pollution:
The regulations will now have to be approved in talks with member states, some of which are likely to push back against the strict new rules.
Under the directive, single use items such as ballon sticks, cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, and stirrers will be banned be 2021, while 90% of plastic bottles would be recycled by 2025.
For other items, e.g., beverage cups, food containers, plastic bags, packets and wrappers, and wet wipes and sanitary towels – greater responsibility will be placed on producers to redesign products and mitigate plastics use.
Measures would also require tobacco companies to cover collection and processing of cigarette butts – reducing those entering the environment by 80% over the ensuing 12 years – and producers of fishing gear to collect 50% of lost or abandoned fishing gear each year, according to the Independent. The fishing gear provision would have the most significant impact – if actually implemented and enforced – as abandoned fishing gear comprises about 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is three times the size of France (see my previous post for further details, Plastic Watch: Great Pacific Garbage Patch Grows).
Good news, no?
Not so fast. While this EU action is certainly better than nothing– and a step beyond what countries including the United States and Japan have thus far failed to do– a bit of scrutiny suggests ecstatic celebration may be premature.
First Flaw: Lax Deadlines
The EU has been mulling restrictions for what seems to this observer to have been forever, while meanwhile, the rubbish accumulates.
According to the directive:
The amount of plastic marine litter in oceans and seas is growing, to the detriment of ecosystems, biodiversity and potentially human health, and causes widespread concern. At the same time, valuable material that could be brought back into the economy is lost, once littered. Plastic makes up 80-85% of the total number of marine litter items, measured through beach counts.
Single Use Plastic (SUP) items represent about half of all marine litter items found on European beaches by counts. The 10 most found SUP items represent 86% of all SUP items (constituting thus 43% of all marine litter items found on European beaches by count). Fishing gear containing plastics accounts for another 27% of marine litter items found on European beaches. This initiative focuses therefore on the 10 most found SUP and fishing gear, which together represent around 70% of these marine litter items by count.
Plastics is widely available, persistent, and often has toxic and other harmful impacts. Due to its persistency, the impacts of plastic litter are growing as each year more plastic waste accumulates in the oceans. Plastic residues are now found in many marine species – sea turtles, seals, whales, birds as well as in several species of fish and shell fish and therefore enter the food chain. In addition to harming the environment and potentially human health, plastic marine litter damages activities such as tourism, fisheries and shipping.
Given the time the magnitude of the problem- and the time the EU has wasted kicking it around – the proposed deadlines, for banning specific items, and for meeting recycling targets – lack ambition. And for other types of items where the onus falls on producers, the timetable is especially woofy.
Contrast this to Vanuatu, which this year adopted – and then implemented – a single-use plastics ban, as discussed further in If Vanuatu Can Ban Single-Use Plastics, So Can the Other Commonwealth Countries.
Second Flaw: Undue Reliance on Recycling Fairy, Rather than Outright Reduction
The single-use directive is part of a broader strategy that otherwise places undue reliance on the recycling fairy – a problem I discussed in this January post, EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late?, discussing adoption of a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. That includes a requirement to ensure that all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2030.
As I noted in that post:
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”…[my emphasis]
That, to my mind, is the wrong goal. Instead, the EU should abandon that neoliberal rhetoric and instead pursue a drastic reduction in consumption of all plastics, that extends beyond the items covered by the latest directive.
Others have also debunked the recycling fallacy; see this September piece in The Independent, Everything you’ve been told about plastic is wrong – the answer isn’t recycling:
It’s clear that something needs to change, and it’s not about recycling. If we want to truly address the devastating impact of single-use plastic the answer is simple: governments must focus on stopping its production entirely.
Alas, the latest EU directive only bans outright some single-use plastic, and fudges what’s done with the rest. Over to The Independent again:
There are a small number of contexts in which single-use plastic is unavoidable, but the vast majority of it thoughtless and unnecessary. If corporations’ profits were increased by using other types of packaging – or none at all – we would see a real change in the environmental impact of our waste. Consumers can already choose to opt out of plastic, but it’s not easy. Sourcing things like food, toiletries, household products and electronics without plastic packaging is time-consuming and can be expensive. Living a sustainable life should not be a left-field choice for the elite, it should be the norm for us all. The onus is on political leaders to make it impossible to profit from manufacturing single-use plastics.
Third Flaw: Fracking Begets Plastic, and Thereby Exacerbates Global Warming
Another benefit that would follow from drastically reducing use of plastics outright rather than recycling is that less production of plastic would reduce global warming. The US petrochemical industry has mounted a campaign to create a plastics belt in the former rust belt, using fracked natural gas, as reported by DeSmogBlog last week in Why Plans to Turn America’s Rust Belt into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate. Reduced demand for plastic would stymie these plans. I’ve written more generally about the link between fracking and ramping up plastics production in January in Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis.
Just a short aside here: I do understand that plastic is lighter than some packaging alternatives, and thus, eliminating its use for certain applications might increase the weight of shipping and thereby increase the use of fossil fuels. But surely that’s a small consideration next to the ramp up in supply of unnecessary plastics arising from the fracking boom that the DeSmogBlog piece and my previous post discussed.
Fourth Flaw: Recycling Capacity
I recently posted on the crisis in worldwide waste disposal caused by China’s decision last year to ban plastic imports for recycling in Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia. Countries continue to create waste and export it for processing elsewhere, overwhelming the recycling capacity of many countries that have accepted it, and in some instances, encouraging the growth of illegal plastic recycling facilities, as The Wire discusses further in As Global Plastic Waste Piles Up, Malaysia Struggles Not to Turn into a ‘Trash Can’. Some communities that have previously recycled have in some cases, abandoned such programs.
Any EU plan that relies on recycling must include provisions to increase the capacity for safe recycling- ideally where the waste is generated– and not just dump the problem on poorer countries.
And as The Guardian account cited above makes clear, there’s also a Brexit angle to consider, now that the European Parliament has approved this latest single-use plan:
Labour MEPs said the EU plan must be respected by the UK after Brexit. Seb Dance, the party’s environment spokesman in the European parliament, said: “These new measures will slash the use of single-use plastics in the EU. With more than 700,000 plastic bottles littered in the UK every day, it would be negligent if the UK does not maintain these new targets if we leave the EU.
“Unless the UK mirrors EU action on plastics after Brexit, the Tories risk turning the UK into a dumping ground for cheap, non-recyclable plastics.”
The UK government has published more than 20 consultations on the plastic problem in 2018 but has yet to move forward with primary legislation.
Fifth Flaw: No Plan to Clean Up Existing Rubbish
Even assuming the latest plan arrested further fouling of the environment, what about all the junk that’s currently floating around out there? European waste not only besmirches its beaches, but has found its way elsewhere as well. Microplastics contaminate table salt, according to National Geographic in Microplastics found in 90 percent of table salt, and are found in insect larvae. To be sure, reducing or recycling plastic waste is important – crucial, actually. We also need government-backed schemes to tackle retrieving plastic that’s already in the environment, instead of relying on private solutions to clean up our oceans (for one such effort, see Plastic Watch: First Ocean Cleanup Array to Launch Tomorrow).
What Is to Be Done?
I’m sure I’m not alone, dear readers, when I confess I find the plastic problem to be deeply depressing.
Now, I don’t wish to suggest that cleaning up this mess can effectively be done by individual action alone. Strong government action, and tighter regulation, will be necessary.
But since what’s been seen so far has been slow and scattered, not to mention deeply inadequate, there are some steps each of us can take. (See, for example, these previous posts: Plastics: Don’t Microwave, or Place in the Dishwasher and Plastic Free July: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Plastics Waste, for some suggestions.)
I’ve recently stumbled across two other articles that offer other ideas– although I concede, the behavior may seem to be a bit fiddly; nonetheless, I recommend the following piece from the Epicurious website, How I Stopped Using Plastic and Built a Travel Silverware Set. The headline is a bit misleading, as the personal silverware can be used as one goes about one’s daily routine, and is not confined to travel per se.
And from Lonely Planet, I spotted a more extended treatment of the same concern, How to reduce your use of plastic on a trip. Neither of these pieces offer complete solutions, by any means, but worth reading for useful suggestions on reducing one’s personal use of plastic.