Prevention is the best cure for plastic waste

Despite growing awareness of the environmental toll of plastics, production and consumption are continuing to grow in Europe. An increasing number of European countries are shifting from recycling to prevention, but these efforts must be scaled up and made more binding, says the Europe Environment Agency (EEA).

Recycling was once regarded as the holy grail when it came to dealing with plastic waste. However, our limited recycling capacity and our endless appetite for this versatile and malleable but indestructible and highly polluting material mean that the mountains and oceans of plastic waste just keep on growing.

This is reflected in how the demand for plastic in the European Union catapulted from 46 million tonnes in 2010 to 52 million tonnes in 2017, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Meanwhile, less than a third of plastic waste in Europe was recycled. Even worse, only 6% of Europe’s demand for plastic was covered by domestic recycling.

This means that most plastic waste was not recycled, ending up in landfills or incinerators. A significant proportion of this waste is exported, but new global rules will severely restrict this kind of transnational dumping. “This doesn’t make any economic or environmental sense,” says Piotr Barczak, the EEB’s senior policy officer for waste.

Dispensing with disposable culture

The major factor behind our continuously bloating demand for plastic is our contemporary throwaway culture of convenience. “The use of plastic in products keeps increasing because of its low price and the useful properties of the various plastic types,” notes a new EEA report on plastic waste prevention.

However, though plastic may be culturally disposable, it is environmentally pretty much indestructible, and will pollute our land and oceans for centuries to come. “It’s time to put an end to the ‘throwaway culture’ that has been imposed on people for the past two or three decades,” insists Barczak.

Operating by the maxim that prevention is better than cure, both the EU and individual European countries have been gravitating towards policies and mechanisms to avoid the production of plastic waste in the first place. “EU or national strategies and legislation around waste, therefore, routinely place waste prevention at the top of their objectives,” explains the report, which was launched at the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki.

The most successful of these efforts are policies related to disposable plastic carrier bags. Recent ambitious initiatives include last year’s European strategy for plastics in a circular economy and the recently adopted EU directive on single-use plastics.

Unpacking the problem

The sector consuming the lion’s share of Europe’s output of plastics is packaging, followed by the construction, automotive and electronics sectors. In addition to being the largest, packaging is also the most problematic because the plastic used in it becomes waste almost immediately, while in construction this occurs up to half a century later.

The EEA report observes that, over the past decade, “a recent relative decoupling of plastic packaging waste generation from economic growth”. This means that the amount of packaging waste Europe produces has expanded less than economic growth but continues to increase.

Europe’s partial success in reducing plastic waste is partly down to the nature of the measures that have been adopted. “The majority of policy instruments employed by countries are soft measures,” points out the report. These range from public information and awareness raising campaigns to voluntary agreements and market-based initiatives.

Binding and measurable targets for plastic waste prevention in Europe are relatively rare and exist in only nine countries. This is inadequate, the EEA says. “Countries need to intensify their efforts and design more precise and concrete measures by giving priority to the most impactful plastic types or plastic products that are designed to be short lived and non-recyclable,” the report concludes.