Oceans #7: EU Plastics Strategy – The Commission’s Legacy & What We Can Expect
The Commission has just released the first ever Europe wide strategy on plastic. This text lays out the vision for tackling plastic pollution, with its main aims to reduce disposable plastic use, limit micro-plastic use, and make manufacturing packaging fully recyclable by 2030. Big news. But is it bold and ambitious, or more politics as usual?
In this episode, we review and discuss the content of this strategy together with Coordinator of Rethink Plastic, Delphine Lévi Alvarés. Big topics on the table include: the absence of clear target for recyclable packaging, possible upcoming legislation on single-use plastics, how to prevent unintentional microplastics, possible oxoplastics ban, and the plastic tax surprise.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Camille Duran [CD]: Eleen before we start: Last time I met with Paul Rose,
Eleen Murphy [EM]: From the Guns N’ Roses?
CD: No that’s Axel Rose! Paul Rose is the National Geographic explorer & TV Presenter from the UK…
EM: Ah yes, you never know with you…. Great, what did he tell you?
CD: I asked him what’s the one plastic story that stands out for him. Have a listen.
Paul Rose: For me it’s the Arctic. I know the Arctic very well. I used to go out there, and when you’re on an Arctic beach, it’s a funny old place even in summer, because the ice – the fast ice, as they call it – is stuck to the land. But you can have a bit of trouble working out where the sea begins and the land ends and where you are on the tidal cracks, and are you going to fall in the sea and everything! And you’d never see any plastic, because the ice edge was so far out there, even when the ice is loose it creates a massive barrier around the arctic. We’d never see any plastic, because it would come up and butt against the ice edge. We didn’t know that at the time, but it was.
But now with climate change, all that ice around all those islands is gone in the summer. So the beaches are stone, pebbly and rocky beaches. And what’s on them? Plastic, of all kinds. So that’s a real shocker for me, to see that. You know, we sort of get used to seeing it on a beach in temperate zones, but to find that in the Arctic…man, that’s a killer. You know? That hurts me.
CD: Yeah that’s just to remind us how big and how urgent the plastic issue really is.
EM: In case any listener is still in doubt.
CD: Direct transition: the EU Commission just released its plastic strategy, we started to talk about it in the previous episode.
EM: Anything ambitious?
CD: That’s what we are going to talk about in today’s episode: what can we expect from the EU exactly?
EM: Good question.
CD: First V.P. Timmermans and V.P. Katainen dropped in on the Parliament for the announcement and addressing a couple of questions.
CD: Well, I don’t think anyone expected bold moves. This Commission is entering the last part of their mandate, they say they have budget limitations and even if Timmermans’ introductory speeches show conviction & determination, we are going to need a lot more than what is outlined in the text.
But… some interesting developments!
EM: Tell me more…
CD: I unpacked the content of the plastic strategy with an organisation that is very active in this debate and which I knew would be one hundred percent aligned with the interests of the Planet and communities worldwide.
EM: Like aligned for real, you mean.
CD: Right, it’s a coalition of NGOs that is following the plastic debate at the European level. They are called Rethink Plastic and I debriefed with their Coordinator, Delphine Lévi Alvarés.
EM: Let’s hear it!
CD: Hello Delphine, are you there?
Delphine Lévi Alvarés [DLA]: Yes I’m here!
CD: Thanks for making some time. It’s an important week; we’re going to about the plastic strategy and what’s in the text. Can you first tell us about the purpose of this plastic strategy. What was expected?
DLA: So, it’s a document where the European Commission lays out their vision for tackling plastic pollution in the future. It’s an action plan more than anything else, it’s not a binding document.
CD: At Rethink Plastic, what is the overall feeling of your group after the release of this plastic strategy?
DLA: The overall feeling of our group is that it’s quite a positive strategy. It’s not complete: there are always things to improve, but it’s a good declaration of intention from the Commission, and now what we want to see is action.
CD: I bet. I suggest we just dive in: I want to talk about a few of the subtopics that the strategy covers. Do you feel that there’s one theme in particular that has been dominating the discussion, or has it been an even mix of themes – when it comes to, you know, microplastics, oxo-degradables, single use, recyclability, and so on?
DLA: I think it’s been a pretty balanced debate. A lot of topics have been discussed during the year and a half that has preceded the publication of this strategy. A lot of focus was put at the beginning on recycling, and the role of the Coalition and other environmental NGOs was really to stress the need for reduction. The topic of single use plastics in the latest month has been occupying the scene, and we are quite happy to see that the Commission is already taking a step and consulting European citizens and stakeholders on what kind of legislative measures we could implement at the E.U. or national level to reduce single-use plastic items.
CD: Yes and let’s start with that theme then on single use plastics. A directive that was mentioned a couple of times was the single-use plastic bag directive, which was very successful in the countries that implemented it. I think you are pushing for replicating that directive for other single-use plastic items?
DLA: Yeah, we could imagine the same kind of mechanism for other single-use plastic items like [indistinguishable], disposable cups, lids and straws, and cutlery…
CD: Service wear?
DLA: Yeah, service wear, exactly.
CD: What do you expect on the single-use plastics front in the year to come?
DLA: We expect legislative proposals to be tabled by the Commission, and discussed by the European Parliament and the Council. That should come before summer, because you probably know that it’s the last active year of this Commission, because next year we’ll have the European Elections. And we will have a new Commission taking over in September next year. So it’s the closing down of the mandate of this Commission and I think they want to finish with a solid legacy. I hope that they want to finish with a solid legacy on single-use plastics.
CD: Okay. moving to microplastics now. So, those are the pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters, I think, that are found in the environment because they were intentionally added to products, like cosmetics, detergents, or paint. Intentionally added, by opposition to the microplastics resulting from the degradation of macroplastics. So there’s this sort of intentional versus unintentional debate, which I think is interesting. What are your takeaways on this chapter?
DLA: On this chapter we are welcoming the step taken by the Commission to ban them, and to ban them for a wide variety of products – not only cosmetics, which was the low-hanging fruit in a way. So now the scope is open, and it’s going to be dealt under a very technical process called Rich (nothing to do with money). And it’s going to look at the different kind of products in which we have intentionally added microplastics.
CD: So it covers only intentionally added microplastics? How about the other side of the problem: the microplastics that are in tire dust, in textile microfibres and so on?
DLA: Yeah, so for these ones it’s going to be about working at the product level: how do we improve the products themselves to prevent the release of microplastics or microfibres into the environment. In the case of textiles, it could be also how do we improve the washing machine and wastewater treatment systems so that we prevent the release of these microfibres. So for all of these topics that are more recent, and for which there are no silver bullets, there are discussions amongst the stakeholders, and the Commission is planning some research on this to find appropriate measures to prevent them.
CD: Okay. Oxo-degradable plastic, which is also quite a technical area. It’s a type of plastic that is designed to break down into small pieces that most often remain in the environment later on. I think something happened there as well?
DLA: For oxo-plastics, we got a good signal from the Commission about their intention to restrict their use under the Rich process again – the same process as the one that is going to regulate microplastics. And here it’s real good news because these plastics have been seriously damaging the environment and the recycling system as well, and a ban was urgently needed. We don’t know how long it’s going to take, and we don’t know if it’s going to be a full ban or only restricting the use in certain sectors, but we’re going to engage in this process and make sure it goes in the direction that we want. That is to say, a full ban.
CD: One more thing I wanted to talk about. A few days ago, the Commissioner for Budget raised an interesting idea around an E.U. plastic tax – a European-wide plastic tax. It was a little bit of a surprise, no?
DLA: It was! It was a surprise, yeah. I think it was a surprise as much for the NGOs as it was for the people in the Commission working on the plastic strategy. And everybody asked us what our opinion was, and I think it’s a very good question. We are in general in favour of using any economic mechanisms to reduce plastics, in particular single-use plastic and over-packaging. On this tax specifically, we are cautiously optimistic. One thing is sure, that we definitely need more information about what he had in mind and how it could be turned into something operational at the E.U. level. And for us, this tax should really be designed to drive-down the use of single-use plastics and over-packaging in general, rather than being primarily a source of income for the E.U.
CD: Right. And Jyrki Katainen was asked was asked about this, after the presentation…let’s have a listen.
Jyrki Katainen: In a way one could say that it would be a good way to create our own resources for the E.U. because at the same time while we are taxing, it addresses our environmental objectives. But the better plastic strategy implementation we have, the less income we can collect. This is another side of the coin. Second point, I have been working with environmental taxes, and I like them if they are done well. But we have not yet found a way to introduce a European-wide plastic tax. As I said in my introductory remark, we are ready to look at fiscal means or fiscal solutions for incentivising recycling or reducing plastics, especially single-use plastics. But it’s too early to promise anything. Some of our member states have used tax measures or fiscal measures to reduce single-use plastic bags, so it has functioned well on the national level. So in this same spirit, we will look at all the opportunities, but whether we manage to find a well-functioning, European-wide tax on plastic…I have my doubts.
CD: So yeah, he was not super comfortable about this idea, but probably there’s some discussion going on backstage. Any closing words? What’s next for you guys?
DLA: Work, work, work. We need to ensure that everything that is in this strategy is turned into action – and action aiming at tackling plastic pollution and at operating the changes in the system we need to tackle plastic pollution in the future, in Europe and globally. So most of our key topics were addressed, and were more or less in line with what we wanted to see in the strategy, but we are aware that there are a lot more topics that need to be addressed to really tackle plastic pollution. And that some areas were not covered enough – like chemicals and toxics in plastics. This is a key area if you want to build trust in the recycled material market in the future, and make sure that we use more recycled plastics than virgin plastic. It will have to be addressed soon.
CD: Thank you for being with us!
DLA: Thank you for inviting us!
EM: Interesting. I see what you meant earlier. There seems to be a lot of “intentions to investigate”, or, “develop a measure to…” but nothing that bites hard enough.
CD: Yes I mean, it’s going in the right direction. Well hey, I hope it’s going in the right direction, right? Back to what we were saying in the previous episode about making history, the small stuff versus the real stuff, passing on the baby to the next Commission, etc. I don’t think anyone in this Commission will be remembered as someone who drastically changed the game.
EM: More like E.U. politics as usual?
EM: Okay, what’s next?
CD: What’s next? Well we keep up the fight! the problem is not going to solve itself and every single joule of energy we can mobilise is vital. Every gram of plastic we can avoid consuming, reuse or in last resort send to recycling
EM: True recycling-
CD: -Indeed, is a step in the right direction.
EM: Yeah but who else can we mobilise? Who are the people or organisations that have real leverage in the story?
CD: Uh…industry you mean?
EM: I don’t know…. Yeah, like, a company like Procter & Gamble puts X billion products on the market everyday, what are they doing? And the oil industry? Isn’t plastic production their new brainchild now since they know that oil for fuel is going to disappear eventually?
CD: Shhhh Eleen, be careful, you’re going to get us in trouble. We can tell the truth but not too loud. Because you’re putting your finger on the real problem here.
EM: Yeah but it feels no one wants to talk about this?!
CD: Should we?
EM: Aren’t we supposed to go to the root of the issues we investigate?
CD: Okay,, so we should go and see what industry has to say then.
EM: I think we should
CD: Can we try to do this with an open mind and no preconceived ideas?
EM: No preconceived ideas? You mean as if our industry and our societies’ economic model are not the real root cause of all this?
CD: I mean, like trying to understand how those guys are thinking, for real, without judgement. Then we let our listeners draw their own conclusions.
EM: Sure! But you’re going to need to double up on meditation.
CD: What do you mean?
EM: It’s going to be way too tempting for you to make spicy comments.
CD: No, I’ll be fine. It’s part of the game, we need to be open to all perspectives out there. We cannot say we know better why and how, just like this.
EM: Whew! I really feel like we’re not done solving all this.
CD: But we are patient, Eleen. Good things take time.
EM: Yes! And to all our listeners: you should know this series is going to keep unfolding during the year, sometimes other themes will be published in between,
CD: We publish when we have something solid.
EM: Yes, so stay tuned – hopefully we can help you look at all this in a new way.
CD: We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration and hopefully less plastic. Keep up the good work in the meantime!