Europe & UK Decide To Get Serious About Plastic Pollution, Sort Of

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Let’s face it. The world is drowning in plastic. In many ways it is the perfect metaphor for how humanity views the earth — a place that will tolerate an infinite amount of pollution while we blithely go about our pursuit of happiness. For decades, scientists and earth justice advocates have been banging the drum about the dangers of plastic, especially single-use, throwaway containers that often wind up in the oceans and landfills. CleanTechnica has published numerous articles over the years on the subject. Suddenly, the tectonic plates of policy have shifted and governments are now willing to spend political capital to rein in the rampant rise of plastic.

The UK Announces Its 25 Year Plan

plastic wasteLast week, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the UK is embarking on a 25 year plan for the environment that will target plastic waste. “In years to come, I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly. Today I can confirm that the UK will demonstrate global leadership. We must reduce the demand for plastic, reduce the number of plastics in circulation and improve our recycling rates.”

The proposal calls for markets to introduce plastic-free aisles, funding for “plastics innovation,” and financial assistance to developing nations to help them deal with onslaught of plastics that has become a large component of daily life. On a smaller scale, the fee applied to plastic bags would be extended to smaller retail operations and a tax on single-use takeout packaging might be considered.

Environmental groups were less than thrilled with May’s proposal. Greenpeace called it a “missed opportunity” and Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, labeled the plan “a cynical attempt at re-branding the Tories’ image and appears to contain only weak proposals.”

The Other Iceland

Iceland, a UK food store chain, is doing now what the government plans to do years from now. Managing director Richard Walker tells The Guardian, “The world has woken up to the scourge of plastics. A truckload is entering our oceans every minute, causing untold damage to our marine environment and ultimately humanity — since we all depend on the oceans for our survival. The onus is on retailers, as leading contributors to plastic packaging pollution and waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change. There really is no excuse any more for excessive packaging that creates needless waste and damages our environment.”

Iceland (the food chain, not the country) has already removed plastic straws — one of the worst offenders in terms of damaging wildlife — from its shelves and has pledged that its stores will be plastic-free within 5 years. Paper products will be used whenever possible in packaging and takeout containers, and the chain will vigorously support not only a fee on plastic bottles but also a ramp up in recycling efforts.

The EU Announces Its Own Plastics Program

On the other side of The Channel, the European Commission has announced its own “war on plastics.” Speaking to several news organizations, including The Guardian, Frans Timmermans, vice president of the commission, said it plans to address “single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce, you use it for five minutes, and it takes 500 years to break down again. If we don’t do anything about this, 50 years down the road we will have more plastic than fish in the oceans.”

The EU plan sets a target of recycling 55% of all plastic by 2030, a reduction in the use of plastic bags, more money to research better packaging solutions, and providing more public drinking water dispensers to reduce the use of single-use bottles. It will also require EU nations to “monitor and reduce their marine litter.” New labeling standards will be introduced so consumers are better informed about the recyclability of the plastic products they use.

It’s All China’s Fault

You might think that government officials in the UK and Europe have suddenly had an epiphany and realized humanity can no longer use the world as a communal toilet, but the epiphany actually happened in China, which decided last year that it was tired of being a “garbage dump for the world.” It used to take in half of the world’s recycled plastic and paper, but closed its borders to waste from foreign countries as of January 1. With nowhere left to send its trash, the EU and UK are being forced to look in the mirror and confront their own role in promoting the scourge of plastics.

Politicians the world over are skillful at kicking the can down the road, leaving the hard work for future generations to do. EU and UK officials have now taken to bickering about who is doing the most to address the plastics conundrum and who came up with the idea first. Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat who is a member of the EU environment committee, said recently, “The EU strategy is far from perfect, but it’s better than what the UK government is offering. Theresa May would have you think she is the fairy godmother of plastics — but she isn’t. I will be long dead before the end of Mrs May’s strategy. I hope the oceans won’t be too.”

Earth Justice Begins At Home

The proposals from both the UK and the EU seem to be heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. Plastics can be made from plant-based sources. They can be made biodegradable. Economic and regulatory strategies exist that could significantly curtail the popularity of single-use plastic containers. The fact that those who manufacture plastics don’t have to bear the cost of the damage their products do to the environment amounts to an untaxed negative externality that needs to be corrected.

Education is also part of the solution. Frans Timmermans of the European Commission says, “If children knew what the effects are of using single-use plastic straws for drinking sodas, or whatever, they might reconsider and use paper straws or no straws at all. It only took me once to explain to my children and now they go looking for paper straws, or don’t use straws at all. It is an issue of mentality.” Yes it is, Mr. Timmermans. Earth justice begins at home and we all need to do our part. If the people will lead, their leaders will follow — eventually.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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