Can Europe Find Creative Solutions to Address Addiction to Plastics?
Rolph Payet, executive director of the Basel Convention on transnational shipments and disposal of hazardous waste, rang in 2021 with about as much optimism as one could reasonably hope for at the height of a global pandemic. Celebrating the entry into force of amendments to the Basel Convention that now allow global importers of plastic waste to exercise “prior consent” on shipments from overseas, Payet offered his “optimistic view” that it would take just five years for the international community to see positive results on the amount of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
The amendments to the Basel Convention, which were adopted in May 2019 and which now also prohibit the transboundary shipment of waste classified as “hazardous”, represent something of a quiet revolution in Europe’s unsustainable relationship with plastic. Up until the end of last year, the standard operating procedure for dealing with the European Union’s collective addiction to plastics has been to dump plastic waste on less industrialized countries, including many in Southeast Asia, and leave them to deal with the health and environmental impact of rampant plastic pollution.
As countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines struggle to come to grips with their own rampant plastic crises, the days in which they could allow themselves to import Europe’s waste are clearly at an end.
Europe’s current strategy comes up short
The European Commission, recognising this inevitable shift, has undertaken a number of policy initiatives to move EU citizens away from plastic and towards more sustainable and less polluting alternatives. Last March, just as the full impact of COVID-19 was making itself felt in Europe for the first time, the Commission adopted a new, updated Circular Economy Action Plan. One of the key aims of the plan is to restrict the use of single-use plastic products, particularly through a Single Use Plastic Directive (SUPD) which the EU officially adopted in 2019.
As of now, however, the European institutions are still deliberating the parameters of the SUPD and much-vaunted bans on single-use plastics, even as the Basel Convention’s amendments come into force and European economies face the prospect of either incinerating their plastic waste or dumping it in landfills – internalising a problem they had long been able to ship abroad.
Strangely, however, the Commission’s approach to reducing plastic waste at this critical juncture seems to entail targeting other materials entirely. In doing so, the Commission may be undermining its own ecological objectives, arbitrarily imposing a new model of consumption that aggravates environmental challenges without addressing the root causes of marine pollution.
New numbers strengthen pleas for a paper-friendly approach
Those dangers seem especially pronounced in relation to the Commission’s handling of single-use paper products used by the restaurant industry, which the EC’s draft guidelines for implementation of the SUPD seem to indicate will be lumped in with plastics. The Commission’s rationale in targeting single-use paper is apparently based on the thin layer of plastic polymer used in many of these products, which serves as a barrier between the container and the food or beverage it’s meant to contain.
A new study, however, challenges the notion that pushing restaurants away from paper cutlery, cups, and bowls and towards reusable products is an ecologically sound approach. Ramboll, the well-known Danish consultancy which regularly works with the European Commission on its own environmental assessments, has now conducted an analysis on the comparative environmental impacts of single-use paper tableware and multi-use alternatives in “quick service restaurants”.
Per the results of that analysis, single-use paper significantly outperforms its reusable competition in terms of their relative contributions to climate change, freshwater consumption, the use of fossil fuels, and fine particulate matter emissions. The study finds reusables generate 2.7 times more CO2 emissions and use 3.6 times the amount of freshwater compared to single-use paper products.
As highlighted by the Ramboll study, the surprisingly large footprint of reusable tableware – towards which the Commission is seeking to move both restaurants and customers – comes down to the water and energy needed to clean them, an issue that single-use paper products do not face.
Seeking out bolder solutions
Beyond the findings of this individual study, the radically different recycling rates for the two materials undercut any direct comparison between paper and plastic. Up to 86% of the paper used in Europe annually is recycled, while the same can be said for as little as 9% of the plastic ever consumed by humans. Further undermining any conflation between the two: plastic accounts for 85% of marine litter worldwide, whereas paper’s role to the marine pollution issue is minimal by comparison.
This is not to discount Europe’s comparative advance in relation to the rest of the world in addressing its plastics problem. According to Eurostat, nearly 41% of the total packaging waste generated across the EU in 2018 was actually paper and cardboard waste, more than doubling plastic’s share of the total. The EU as a whole only recycles 42% of its overall plastic waste, and half of that amount was shipped abroad – an option that will now be far more limited as a result of the updated Basel Convention. Even so, the EU does far better on handling its plastic waste than the United States, where only 15% ultimately gets recycled.
Faced with the prospect of burning or burying its plastic, Europe is going to need to quickly implement bold, creative ideas to manage and ultimately reverse its addiction to plastic. Some solutions will be based on reliable alternatives to plastic, including not just reusable alternatives but also single-use options made out of sustainable materials. Others will depend on fundamentally changing how Europeans consume products and generate waste. What’s already clear is that no one policy will be able to solve the EU’s plastics crisis on its own.
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