The EU “plastics ban” – and its effects. Plastics Report 2018, Part 2
The EU “plastics ban” – and its effects. Plastics Report 2018, Part 2
The EU’s recently unveiled plastics strategy is a mix of plastic bans, regulations and quotas. It’s clearly too much for some; for others, it’s too little and still just window dressing. The only thing that’s clear: due to growing pollution and increasing pressure, there’s no way around regulation. Even when it comes to bioplastics. Let’s take a closer look.
About 90 per cent of the five major garbage gyres in the Pacific Ocean originated from Asian sources. But that’s no reason for the rest of the earth’s population to relax. In the first instalment of our Plastics Report we discussed the phenomenon of ubiquitous microplastics. And we all generate those, just by doing things like moving a car around or by using cosmetics, toothpaste, laundry detergents, paints and synthetic textiles.
Microplastics are released during use and in unavoidable abrasion processes, which create so-called rinse-off products. In the EU alone, an estimated 75,000 to 300,000 metric tonnes of those migrate into our environment each year.
The first microplastics bans
Following the US, Canada and New Zealand, the UK recently became the first European country to ban microplastics in shower gel and toothpaste. As of 1 July 2018, Sweden has also prohibited the sale of certain cosmetics containing the microscopically small polymers.
The German Environment Agency has called for an EU-wide ban of microplastics in cosmetics, stating that voluntary cosmetics-industry commitments don’t go far enough.
“A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”
In January 2018, the EU Commission laid out its principles for the future handling of plastics in a paper titled, “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy” (find a download link at the end of this article).
One of the core objectives: make all plastics recyclable by 2030. The recommendations presented call for a ban of all plastics for which alternatives made from safer materials exist. The ban is also supposed to eliminate the leading items littering our beaches.
The fight against disposable products and packaging madness
In the consumer universe, moreover, the EU aims to make the already short product life of disposables even more difficult and attack the root of packaging madness – either through outright bans or through regulations requiring, for example, that lids be inseparably connected to the actual container.
Another way to finetune behaviour is levying special fees on producers of environmentally damaging packaging materials, such as crisp bags, beverage and fast-food packaging, and cigarette filters.
By 2025, all EU member states are supposed to separately collect a minimum of 90 per cent of their single-use plastic bottles in order to return them to recycling processes. One tool to accomplish this goal is a deposit on single-use containers.
All these actions are driven by the EU’s efforts to boost the recycling rate as far up as possible, conserve primary raw materials, and minimise waste and CO2 production.
It is for this purpose that EU commissioner Günther Oettinger has put up for discussion the concept of a “plastics tax”, suggesting that every EU country pay a tax to the EU for any plastic waste that’s not recycled. A contribution of 80 cents per kilogramme is being discussed.
But there is still a long way to go before we’ll get there. For some, the planned regulations go too far, while others think they’re too lax. Green Party officials and environmental organisations, for instance, are demanding the deadline for the implementation of these regulations to be moved up from 2030 to 2025. What’s more, the proposed measures would only affect one per cent of all plastics.
But one thing’s clear: the move towards a more restrictive handling of plastics is unstoppable at this point. The EU wants one thing above all: recycling. Which brings us to “biodegradable” plastics.
Spoiler alert: bioplastics are not without their own problems. Problems that are far more complex than most laypeople – and even highly involved professionals – think. In principle, the EU, particularly, both demands and promotes new ways of thinking as well as innovative products.
These are certainly not in short supply, especially in the promotional products industry. And it’s not like the plastics discussion so far has bypassed the entire industry. An impressive number of products made from bioplastics in all segments, in particular in the manufacturing of writing utensils, serve as eloquent testimony of promotional products professionals’ willingness to change and make creative adjustments.
Bio-based plastics and their complex set of problems
In its January 2018 policy paper, the EU raised the following points of criticism against “biodegradable” products: supposedly compostable materials are tied to specific conditions more likely found in a laboratory than in the natural environment.
Mixing “compostable” and conventional plastics leads to inferior recyclates. Hence, the same maxim applies to bio-based plastics: “a well-functioning separate collection system for organic waste is essential.”
Also essential in this context is “clear and correct” consumer information. This includes clear regulations stipulating “... which plastics can be labelled 'compostable' or 'biodegradable' and how they should be handled after use.”
“[B]iodegradable plastics … not ... a solution to littering”
The EU’s position vis-a-vis bioplastics is explicitly critical: it is imperative “to make sure that biodegradable plastics are not put forward as a solution to littering” and to “avoid false environmental claims.”
That’s because the decomposition of bioplastics also releases dangerous microplastics, as does the consumption of agricultural resources like arable land for maize and beets. Nevertheless, the Commission isn’t completely shutting the door.
“[S]timulate innovation and drive market developments in the right direction”
“Applications with clear environmental benefits should be identified and in those cases the Commission will consider measures to stimulate innovation and drive market developments in the right direction.”
In other words, bioplastics are, in the eyes of the EU, a rather unloved child, seen as more of a problematic intermediate step on the path to longer-lasting solutions. The foundation of a viable solution lies in organised recycling systems for the disposal of spent consumer goods made from plastic. The same strongly and very specifically applies to bioplastics, as well.
A self-critical resolution made by members of the EU parliament demonstrates that the EU is quite serious when it comes to the handling of plastics. Starting in mid-2019, they want to ban the roughly one million single-use plastic bottles and single-use containers they consume at their seats and meeting places in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, switching instead to drinking fountains and reusable containers.
So here’s the question: How can we use plastic as a material in a way that’s self-aware and yet innovative and self-confident? We’ll tackle this – admittedly difficult – question in the third and final instalment of our Plastics Report 2018.
Download link: “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”