Sunday

17th Jan 2021

Analysis

EU can afford to be tough on plastic straws

  • 'We are at risk of choking our oceans in plastic' (Photo: Bo Eide)

Europe wants to lead the way on rooting out the use of throwaway plastic items, two of the European Commission's top members announced on Monday (28 May).

"We are at risk of choking our oceans in plastic with a knock-on effect on our food chain and human health," said Frans Timmermans, second-in-command in the commission.

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  • Single-use forks may no longer be made of plastic, if the commission's proposal is adopted (Photo: Ingrid Taylar)

He referred to recently released documentaries which showed the harm that single-use plastic wreaks on the environment, and said the commission's plan for a new directive was a direct response to what EU citizens wanted.

That may be the case, but there is another factor which allows the EU to be bold with its proposal.

It was referred to very briefly in Monday's press conference, by commission vice-president in charge of jobs and growth, Jyrki Katainen.

"Many of those products which we are planning to ban now are not produced in Europe," said the Finnish commissioner.

That is why the commission can afford to be ambitious - the impact on European jobs and businesses will be relatively limited.

Environmental groups praised the commission's proposal.

Many green NGOs said in their press statements on Monday that more should be done, but on the whole the tone was positive.

That was in sharp contrast to the reactions to some other environment-related legislative proposals coming out of Brussels recently, like the one on new CO2 standards for cars.

The commission was criticised by NGOs as well as by MEPs for not tabling an ambitious enough proposal.

One key difference between the plastics plan and the CO2 proposal: the amount of European jobs that is at stake.

Plastic plates and straws

The commission has identified the product categories which most often end up as beach litter, and proposed restrictions on them.

However, it is proposing seven different type of actions, with a range of strictness.

The commission proposed to ban altogether the use of plastic as a production material in cotton bud stick, cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers, and sticks that support balloons (but not balloons themselves).

"These products won't disappear, they will just be made with different materials," said Timmermans.

Balloons, as well as wet wipes, tampons and sanitary towels need only have labels that inform consumers about how to properly throw them away.

Instead of banning plastic beverage bottles, it proposed that each EU country sets up its own system for separately collecting 90 percent of those bottles by 2025.

While correlation does not imply causation, it is easily noticeable from the proposal's underlying documentation that the products for which the strictest measures are proposed, are also the ones most often produced outside the EU.

The proposed directive was accompanied by a 77-page impact assessment, which said that only 19 percent of all global plastics production was done in Europe – but half of it in Asia.

Single-use plastic cutlery, straws, stirrers, drinks cups, food containers, and balloon sticks are "predominantly and increasingly imported from the Asia-Pacific region into Europe", the paper said.

Banning those products would thus have only a limited effect on EU producers.

Moreover, the assessment noted, the need to develop the same products with alternative materials - or more durable products - could mean European companies can benefit from the proposal.

"There is less information on where the production of multi-use plastics and, especially, non-plastic alternatives will come from but there could be future opportunities for EU markets," the assessment said.

The directive can only become law if it is accepted by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, where national governments meet.

In particular, the council has a reputation for taking off the sharp edges of environmental proposals, to make it easier for their respective national industries to comply.

Timmermans said on Monday that the commission felt "emboldened about doing the right thing quickly" - and surely the measures have an ideological driver behind them as well.

But there is fortunate alignment of interests here: an environmental goal can be achieved through a de facto protectionist means.

Timmermans specifically mentioned the BBC's Blue Planet II series as having an impact on raising awareness of the global plastics problem

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