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Environment

Europe Wants to Transform How Plastic Is Made and Used to Save the Planet

Officials in the EU are setting out to change the narrative on plastic production and consumption across the continent, hoping to brand a shift away from non-recyclable products as a win for both the environment and the economy.
On Tuesday the Commission of the EU announced the first-ever European wide strategy on plastics. According to a release on the Commission’s website, the aim of the ambitious plan is “to protect the planet, defend our citizens, and empower our industries.”

“Europe can lead the way for the rest of the world,” says Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska at the end of a promotional video explaining the rationale behind the plan. The comment succinctly sums up the ambitious goals adopted by the Commision to adapt their plastics economy to the environmental and market conditions of 2018.

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Some of these goals include increasing plastic recycling to 55% of all products by 2030, reducing the number of single-use plastic bags used per-person to 40 per year by 2026, investing in development of more sustainable plastics design methods, and committing each member state within the EU to monitoring and reducing their marine litter.

These targets fall in line with the commitment made in years past to make sure every single piece of plastic packaging across Europe is reusable or recyclable by 2030. Currently, Europeans generate around 25 million tons of plastic waste each year, but collect less than 30% of that for recycling. The majority of that waste comes in the form of packaging.

Polls released by the Commission show that the vast majority of Europeans are in favor of retailers and government officials taking steps to make recycling plastics easier and more efficient. However, transitioning away from non-recyclable plastics may prove to be a challenge across a continent whose plastic industry does about $400 billion in business each year, and employs almost 2 million people.

The Commission’s new strategy addresses this reality by emphasizing the economic benefits of reforms to the manufacturing and consumption cycle. At current rates of recycling, the Commision estimated that nearly 95% of the potential value in plastic packaging is wasted, at a cost to the European economy of nearly $130 billion per year.

Their plan to modernize recycling infrastructure across Europe, invest capital in better product design research, and improve public systems of materials traceability could theoretically make Europe a hub for a new sustainable plastics industry. In light of a recent announcement that China will no longer accept imports of plastic waste, finding ways to reuse or recycle plastics in Europe became even more of an economic necessity.

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Though the economics of a sustainable plastics sector are appealing on their own, members of the Commission were rather explicit that the environmental concerns of a rampantly wasteful industry are becoming harder to ignore. In an interview with the Guardian, the Commission's vice president Frans Timmermans described the new plastics plan as a necessary solution to an increasingly problematic trend.  

“If we don’t do anything about this, 50 years down the road we will have more plastic than fish in the oceans,” he said. “We are going to choke on plastic if we don’t do anything about this.”

One notable fact about the Commission's plan was that it did not include a proposed tax on single use plastic items. Politico reports that, despite endorsements from Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger last week, no such tax exists in the current form of the strategy.

It remains unclear whether later talks might address this issue.