Rethinking plastic: the expert’s view

The newly agreed laws against plastic pollution could soon become “one of the EU’s proudest achievements,” according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). This week we speak with waste policy expert Piotr Barczak of the EEB to understand what this means for people, governments and the environment.

What’s the most striking aspect of these laws?

The most iconic law is the ban on plastic straws, plates, cutlery and other single-use items. These are some of the most polluting plastic items on European beaches. But the good news is that we already have durable and toxic-free alternatives that people can use and reuse safely.

It’s time to put an end to the ‘throwaway culture’ that has been imposed on people for the past two or three decades.

Okay, but we can’t ban all plastic items, right?

That’s when recycling comes into play. EU governments agreed to separately collect at least 77 percent of plastic bottles by 2024 and to ensure all bottles are made of at least 25 percent recycled plastic by 2025.These two targets will increase to 90 percent of separately collected bottles by 2029 and to 30 percent recycled content by 2030.

Dutch mineral water company Bar-de-Duc showed that it’s possible to produce a bottle using 100 percent recycled material. But without binding targets we have no clear incentive to boost recycling, which means investing in the collection, sorting and recycling of clean and good quality plastic streams.

The targets will also help address Europe’s need to process more waste at home rather than exporting it. Up until last year EU countries heavily relied on China to buy and recycle much of the waste they collected for recycling. But now that the government has banned all plastic imports, Europe is left with no choice but to up its game.

See EEB asks

Why are these rules necessary?

Plastic is choking our environment and endangering life on the planet. Fragments of plastics have even been found in the food we eat and the water we drink. We need to do all we can to avoid the irreversible consequences of plastic pollution and turn our waste problem into an opportunity.

Currently, less than 30 percent of plastic waste in Europe is collected for recycling, while most of it is buried in the ground or sent to expensive incinerators. This doesn’t make any economic or environmental sense.

Will the rules be effective? Will they succeed in changing consumers’ habits?

Whether these laws will be effective depends on the level of enforcement across EU member states, which means it’s too early to draw such conclusions.

Governments will play a key role and will be tasked with creating incentives for people to reduce the use and boost the separate collection of single-use plastic items. After all, these laws and targets are put in place to benefit people and the environment they live in.

For example, the targets concerning recycling and separate collection could be achieved by launching deposit-return schemes, whereby consumers can pay a small deposit which will be refunded when the packaging is returned. Such schemes already exist in some countries, but they must be introduced widel to ensure better waste management across Europe.

But the best way to deal with waste is to not produce it in the first place. Personally, instead of buying a water bottle every day, I always carry a metal flask so that I can refill it.

What are the next steps?

Next step is to turn these laws into reality. EU governments will have 18 months to transpose the text into national laws, which should come into force in the second half of 2020.

Is there anything you would have improved?

Yes, the laws could have been more ambitious in some areas. We regret a few things, namely:

  • No binding EU-wide target to reduce the consumption of food containers and cups, and no obligation for EU countries to adopt targets;
  • A delay of four years on ensuring 90% of plastic bottles are collected separately – from 2025 to 2029;
  • The mandatory target for recycled content in plastic bottles could actually be achieved before 2025, so we would have preferred an earlier date and also a higher target.

How important was the work of NGOs?

Perhaps that’s a question for our law-makers. We’ve worked closely with governments and institutions to ensure the voice of the people was properly represented in the negotiations.

We did so by joining other civil society organisations in the Rethink Plastic alliance – a Brussels-based coalition working to end plastic pollution in Europe. Here we found an amazing group of people committed to making a positive change in the world.

Together we carried out research; we gathered evidence; we brought policy experts and academics together; we talked to the media; we even brought a massive dragon spewing single-use plastic items in front of the EU institutions!

But our job is not done yet. This is just the beginning, so let’s see how far we can get.