EU must steel itself for protracted fight over plastics, warns Friends of the Earth Europe
Few environmental problems have thrust themselves into the public consciousness as quickly as plastics, writes Meadhbh Bolger.
Plastic waste | Photo credit: Press Association
Few environmental problems have thrust themselves into the public consciousness as quickly as plastics. They’re in the water we drink, clogging up our oceans, and wrapped around the food we eat.
Perhaps then, it wasn’t so surprising that the European Commission’s Plastics Strategy made headline news on its release in January. Indeed, European Commission Vice-Presidents Timmermans and Katainen, and Commissioner Vella all showed up to announce it, eager to be associated with what has turned into a feelgood issue for the EU.
However, glowing headlines such as “EU declares war on plastic waste” and “EU plans major crack down on Europe’s plastics pollution”, will only be fulfilled if the Plastics Strategy works to, and goes beyond, its full potential.
This would mean a transformation of our everyday lives: much-needed laws to cut throwaway ‘single-use’ plastics down to essential uses – like for specific medical devices, a ban on microplastics and oxo-degradable plastics, ridding plastics from toxic chemicals that harm our health, and economic incentives and alternative systems to make non-packaged and reusable goods more accessible, such as a plastics tax or deposit return schemes.
These are some of the real measures that political leaders will need to get behind to start dealing with our plastic crisis.
But these are early days, and there are many obstacles to overcome before promises and commitments made in the Strategy become a reality and we begin to see positive change – not least powerful corporations whose current business models depend on an inexhaustible supply of throwaway plastics, and who will fight any meaningful change.
MEPs, national governments and the Commission will have to keep cool heads and be wise to any attempts to water down what comes out of the strategy that many industry groups will try to push for.
These will include shiny voluntary commitments and pledges in place of real legislation. The EU’s lawmakers have a responsibility to make laws in the public interest, not rubber-stamp proposals from corporations.
"There are many obstacles to overcome before promises and commitments made in the Strategy become a reality and we begin to see positive change – not least powerful corporations whose current business models depend on an inexhaustible supply of throwaway plastics, and who will fight any meaningful change"
These groups will also try actively shift the debate further towards recycling being the solution – rather than the absolute reduction of plastics production and consumption we urgently need. Higher recycling rates and more recyclable materials are important, but they are in no way a standalone fix: we can’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution.
There will also be attempts to defend the plastics status quo: for example, through the false argument that plastic packaging is needed to prevent food waste, rather than looking for methods and systems to reduce both food and plastic waste such as shorter food supply chains with reusable packaging systems and package-free stores.
Almost within a generation, plastic has managed to worm its way into so many parts of our everyday life that it can be difficult to imagine our society and economy functioning without it.
But attitudes change fast: just as quickly as we came to depend on it, we can break free and learn to thrive with much, much less.
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