Bold single-use plastic ban pushes Europe’s plastic purge into high gear

Beachgoers in Europe have grown accustomed to the overwhelming sight of plastic waste strewn along the shores. Indeed, 85 percent of the continent’s saltwater beaches and seas exceed pollution standards for marine litter. The Mediterranean Sea is the most polluted of all, with researchers collecting an average of 274 plastic waste per 100 meters of coastline. And beneath the waves, microplastics have turned coastal waters into toxic “plastic soups”.

In a total effort to clean up Europe’s beaches – a plank in the European Union’s pioneering efforts to tackle the nearly 28 million tonnes of plastic waste it generates each year – a ban goes into effect on 3 July which stops the sale on the EU markets of the 10 plastic products that most often end up on the coasts of the continent. These include, among others, plastic bottle caps, cutlery, straws and plates, as well as food and beverage containers made of polystyrene.

The ban is the most visible sign of Europe’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution by creating the world’s first circular plastic regime. By the end of this decade, this will lead to a ban on disposable plastics, the creation of a comprehensive reuse system for all other plastics, and the creation of a large and potentially lucrative European market for recycled plastics. .

A range of EU measures are now directing investment and innovation towards circular solutions that experts and EU officials say will define Europe’s low-carbon economy and improve its performance. global competitiveness. A circular economy is an economy in which products and materials are used throughout their life cycle, from design and manufacturing to reuse or recycling. Unlike the current linear system, products do not end up in the trash, but rather are reintroduced into the production process.

As part of the EU plastics strategy, presented in 2018, the waste guidelines will review the way plastic products are designed, used and recycled. All plastic packaging on the EU market must be recyclable by 2030 and the use of microplastics must be limited.

The measures are the toughest in the world and have already pushed plastic packaging recycling rates in the EU to an all-time high of 41.5%, three times that of the United States. The EU has set a target to recycle 50% of plastic packaging by 2025, a target that now seems within reach. And by 2025, a separate collection target of 77% will be in place for plastic bottles, rising to 90% by 2029.

This comprehensive regime will be based on the widespread adoption of extended producer responsibility regimes, which means that if a company introduces packaging or packaged products into a country’s market, that company remains responsible for the full cost of collection, transport, recycling or incineration of its products. In effect, the polluter pays.

And from this year, EU companies will no longer be able to dump plastic waste in developing countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, India and Indonesia. By exporting plastic waste, the EU had essentially got rid of the scourge – around 1.7 million US tons per year – a significant amount of which was burned in the open, dumped in landfills or simply thrown into the sea. Today, Europe is forced to tackle the full burden of waste itself.

“The EU takes the creation of a circular economy very seriously, and plastics are at the center of it,” said Henning Wilts, director of circular economy at the German Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and energy.

Elsewhere in the world, governments and the private sector are responding to public anger over plastic pollution, but with much less effect than in Europe. Globally, only 14 to 18 percent of plastics are recycled (less than half of the European average) and less than 10 percent is recycled in the United States. circular, largely greenwashing.

“Many types of commonly used plastic packaging are not recyclable and are landfilled, incinerated or exported without recycling verification,” according to a Greenpeace report.

The United States, which generates the largest amount of plastic waste in the world, is inundated with waste now that China – the largest plastic maker – no longer accepts imported waste; many American cities end up throwing plastic waste in landfills or burning it. Congress instructed the National Academies of Sciences to conduct a comprehensive review of the United States’ contribution to plastic waste, which is expected to be released later this year.

Europe’s battle against plastic waste will help the EU meet its ambitious climate target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. The EU believes that the Lower production of petroleum-based plastics could reduce 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent carbon footprint and anticipate environmental damage that would reach 22 billion euros by 2030.

“The 10-item ban is important. It’s not greenwashing, ”said Clara Löw, analyst at the Öko-Institute, a German think tank. “There are many other measures under the European Green Deal to curb plastics and make circularity the fundamental principle of the plastics economy in Europe. Even most Europeans are not aware of everything that is going on right now. “

Critics note, however, that the EU’s blatant 10-item ban covers only one percent of plastic production in Europe. They also point out that the total amount of plastic waste production in Europe has not decreased, which the new measures aim to reverse.

Zero Waste Europe says the production of plastic waste in Europe will only decrease when sanctions such as the 10-item ban and other measures take full effect.

Carmine Trecroci, economist and recycling expert at the University of Brescia in Italy, said that external factors like the price of oil have a major impact; as long as oil is cheap, which has been the case in recent years, so is plastic production, making it all the more difficult to control. The plastics sector in the EU is a big business, employing 1.5 million people and generating 350 billion euros in 2019. Trecroci said the powerful Italian plastics lobby has fought hard to block the ban of the 10 articles, then to slow it down and dilute it. Ultimately, however, the EU approved the ban.

While EU countries still produce large amounts of plastic, the amount of post-consumer plastic waste sent for recycling has climbed 92% since 2006, according to PlasticsEurope, a European association of plastics manufacturers. Meanwhile, landfill – by far the dirtiest waste treatment option – has fallen by 54%.

Since January 1, plastic producers in the EU have to pay a tax of 800 euros per tonne of non-recycled plastic packaging waste. Pressure from Brussels has also prompted voluntary action in the private sector: Coca-Cola Europe, for example, is on track to make 50 percent of its plastic bottles and cans from recycled content.

According to the EU, only 5% of the value of plastic packaging currently remains in the economy after first use. This, he estimates, costs the European economy between 70 and 105 billion euros per year.

“A closed loop,” Löw said, “is when every material, every product and its components will be used as long as possible, repaired or refurbished if broken, [and] recycled several times as secondary raw material without loss of material quality.

Wilts of the Wuppertal Institute added: “Europe is a continent with few raw materials, like oil and metals, so a recycling industry that bypasses the need for virgin raw materials is an industrial strategy as much as an environmental program. . He and others say recycling and recovery facilities will propel recycling in Europe as plastic waste becomes more valuable, the incineration of waste into energy is properly taxed, and more products are standardized for recyclability. . “There is going to be a doubling of sorting and recycling facilities over the next five years,” Wilts said.

The new European plastics economy dates back to the mid-1990s, when the principle of extended producer responsibility was enshrined in European law. According to an article from Zero Waste Europe, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is “crucial to incentivize product redesign with circularity in mind … Ensuring that producers bear 100% of cleanup costs will encourage manufacturer to work with municipalities to ensure high waste collection. their products.”

Trecroci notes that large-scale EPR is already a reality in Northern and Central Europe. In Germany, companies pay fees totaling 1.5 billion euros per year which finance the transport, sorting and recycling of their final waste. “In southern Europe we are at an earlier stage, but EPR will apply here too, in full, in a few years,” said Trecroci.

In addition, in 2019 the EU adopted a directive that by 2025 all EU countries will incorporate 25% recycled plastic in clear plastic bottles and 30% in all plastic beverage bottles. by 2030. This mandatory minimum – already in force in Germany, Denmark and Norway – adds value to plastic waste, because plastic producers need it and will pay for it.

“This creates a demand for high quality recycling materials,” Wilts said. Soon the same principle – minimum amounts of recycled content – will apply to the automotive and construction sectors, he said.

The vast private sector network needed to create this new circular economy is only gaining momentum, according to Wilts. “Ultimately, the recycling industry will produce the basic materials for industrial manufacturing,” he said. “But we are not there yet.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360. It was first published on June 8, 2021. Find the original story here.

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