BERLIN – The European Union is close to outlawing some single-use plastic products, such as cutlery, straws, coffee stirrers and cotton swab sticks — but the measures are too narrow and too lenient toward producers to have a meaningful benefit for the environment. The EU, as one of the biggest producers and the biggest exporter of plastic waste, should do better than this.
Last Wednesday, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve the new rules on plastics. Member states must agree to the measure, but that’s all but guaranteed since the final proposal was coordinated with them. The idea was to cut down on the use of the top 10 plastic objects that wash up on European beaches, as well as on plastic fishing gear, another large source of the marine pollution that the European Commission estimates costs the bloc’s economy up to €695 million a year in damages to tourism and fisheries.
Banning plastic forks, straws and those pesky balloon sticks by 2021 and making sure plastic caps remain attached to bottles after opening is, however, hardly a big step forward. The plastics industry, which lobbied intensively to water down the legislation, still isn’t happy about “extended producer requirements” for the makers of food containers, beverage cups and bottles, cigarette filters, wet wipes, plastic bags and fishing nets. These companies will need to cover clean-up and recycling costs. But member states must implement the programs. That makes the approach inefficient, especially in newer EU members, which have weaker institutions.
The EU is better than most places at recycling plastic waste. The recycling rate has passed 40 percent. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest comparative data are for 2014, when Europe recycled about 30 percent of its plastic waste, three times the U.S. level. Japan and Australia, not to mention emerging economies, are also far behind.
But Europe produces so much plastic waste that it is collectively the biggest exporter, despite the high recycling rate.
Restrictions by China, which used to be the world’s biggest plastic dump, have drastically reduced EU exports. Europe was forced to cut the outbound shipping of waste, but for the most part, it merely replaced China with other receiving countries, Malaysia, Vietnam and Turkey chief among them.
It’s not as if these countries have built up their recycling capacity overnight. In Vietnam, only 10 percent of locally produced plastic waste is collected. A significant amount of the import goes to “craft villages,” where the plastics are processed informally on a small scale, and the unused waste — up to 30 percent — is burned or dumped in rivers. No wonder Vietnam, along with some other Asian economies, started restricting the import of some plastic waste last year.
As a European resident, it’s easy to feel good about garbage collection and recycling practices. In Germany, we have the highest recycling rate in the world, 56 percent, and sorting trash correctly is almost an instinct. But the exports and what happens to them ruin that feel-good story for me. They should ruin it, too, for EU-level and national regulators. Clean, green Europe is really a major polluter of countries it used to colonize.
A truly principled European plastics policy should go much further than the legislation approved by the European Parliament. There’s no reason not to set EU-wide dates for the phaseout of all single-use plastic items except biodegradable or fully recyclable ones. Outlawing coffee stirrers but not plastic bags is illogical. Demanding that producers pay to raise awareness of the environmental damage of their plastic products, as the new rules do, is a convoluted way of solving a problem that most European consumers already acknowledge. The focus should be on convenient alternatives to plastic packaging for the products purchased at the supermarket — and any choice at all when ordering online.
Demanding more from producers should go hand in hand with export and land-filling restrictions on plastic waste. Without them, a phaseout will take too long. I’m happy to sip my cocktails without a straw, but at this point, there’s not much to raise a glass to.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.