Is Europe stepping up to meet the plastic waste challenge?

From waste masses floating in oceans to birds pictured with their bellies full of the stuff, the environmental hazards caused by plastic waste are breaching into the common consciousness. But what exactly is being done about this in the EU, the self-proclaimed environmental front runner of the world?

Plastic has become all-encompassing in our daily lives from tooth brushes to tyres to food packaging. Since its commercialization, plastic has been advertised as a convenient, cheap and disposable material for producers and customers alike. The thing is, plastics are not disposable. Or at least, it takes them hundreds of years to decompose in nature. This means that most of the plastic that has been produced until now still exists in the world today. And there’s a lot of it, with estimates that 9 billion tons have been produced since the 1950s.

If plastic waste is not properly dealt with, it will end up in nature, including oceans. Plastic items will be ground up to tiny particles, less than 5mm in size, called micro-plastics, which animals may end up eating. A study in Lund University has found that when they become even smaller nanoparticles, they can even infiltrate the brain of fish, changing their behaviour. Other research has found plastic behaves like a sponge that pulls in toxins from water, effectively accumulating waterborne chemicals from industry and agriculture in the food chain. It has been projected that by 2050, there will be more plastic debris in the oceans than fish, and despite new innovations to collect it from water, it doesn’t seem easy to get it out once it’s in. This is especially so as research suggests that plastic particles sink to the bottom. The impacts of plastic particles to human health have not yet been studied extensively, but they will likely make their way up the food chain into human consumption. While most plastic waste that ends up in oceans comes from South East Asia where waste management systems are not highly regulated, plastics are leaking into oceans everywhere, including in Europe.

So, with this backdrop, it seems like something needs to be done, and the issue has received attention all the way up at the European Commission. In 2015, they announced a Circular Economy model, which includes goals for recycling and limits on landfilling of municipal waste. As part of this initiative, in January this year a new plastics strategy was announced to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. Currently only about 30% of the 26 million tons of plastic waste produced in Europe each year is recycled, meaning there’s a long way to go to meet this goal. The rest of the plastics are either incinerated or sent to landfills.

To push for action for the recycling goal, this first EU-wide strategy on plastics aims to create new quality standards for plastic packaging to make it more easily recyclable, as well as new requirements for product design. It aims to significantly reduce consumption of single-use plastics such as cutlery and drink bottles through a new law that should come into force next year, and the Commission is also considering a ban on microplastics found in cosmetics such as toothpaste and face scrubs. A new directive is on the way for waste management in harbours to stop ships from releasing waste into the sea. There have been suggestions of monetary measures as well – environmental taxes could help fill the hole left in the EU budget by Brexit. European Budget Commissioner Gunther Ottinger has suggested a levy on the production of plastics from virgin materials, which is now in discussion in the Commission. The Commission is promising that these measures would create up to 200,000 new jobs in recycling related industries and is planning to invest heavily on development and innovation for more sustainable plastics.

This strategy coincides, or is perhaps in part driven by, a new law in China that came into force at the start of this year. It bans imports of 24 different types of waste, including recycled plastics and mixed paper. This is a pretty big deal for many European countries: about a fifth of European plastic waste and a seventh of paper waste was shipped to China in 2016, accounting for 1,6 million and 8 million tons respectively. In many countries, sorting centres are now left trying to deal with this accumulating waste with no alternative place to put it. Prices for recyclables have gone down drastically, and it is possible much of this already separated waste will end up being incinerated or in landfills if other solutions are not found. For individual countries, the statistics are harsh. Ireland has been exporting 95% of its plastic waste to China, while the same figure for the UK is 65%. The UK may also have to face additional challenges as it leaves the common market and may be unable to export waste to EU countries.

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The reasoning China gave for its new policy is the environmental and health impacts of the waste import industry. This is not surprising, since China has become the world’s largest importer of waste with 56% of globally exported waste ending up in the country in 2012. But as China refuses foreign refuse, other Asian countries have increased their intake of European waste, including Malaysia, Vietnam and India. However, they’ll be hard-pressed to get their managing capacity anywhere near the levels of China, and Vietnam and Malaysia have already introduced regulations related to import or environmental permits. This is forcing European countries to figure out new ways to deal with their accumulating recyclables. There has been some speculation that countries like Bulgaria with lax waste regulations could start importing waste from other EU countries for landfilling, despite the Commission’s best efforts to phase out the unsustainable practice.

So, while the European Commission is coming up with ways to reduce plastic use and recycle more in the long run, individual countries are grappling with immediate pileup of recyclables after the Chinese import ban. Recycling experts are expecting chaos in the following months as world markets try to adjust to the new situation and come up with alternative destinations for recyclable materials. This contrast between long-term strategy and short-term struggle may result in a choice between a more sustainable use of materials in Europe – or continuing with the logic of out of sight, out of mind as waste exports continue to be directed to new destinations away from home.

Minttu Hänninen

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