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24th Mar 2019

Oettinger pushes plastic tax but colleagues express doubts

  • EU commissioners Jyrki Katainen (l) and Guenther Oettinger have shown they have different views on the feasibility of a plastic tax (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission said on Tuesday (16 January) that it will "explore" whether an EU-wide tax on plastic is feasible, but fell short of supporting the idea amidst disagreement between its key members.

The commissioner in charge of the EU budget, Guenther Oettinger, floated the idea of a plastic tax last week as a way to plug the gap that will be left after the UK no longer contributes to the EU budget after Brexit.

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  • The European Commission proposed its new strategy on reducing plastic waste (Photo: Zainub Razvi)

The German commissioner had said on Tuesday that his colleagues agreed with his proposal.

But his Finnish colleague Jyrki Katainen, vice-president in charge of jobs and growth, in fact said he had "doubts" about its feasibility.

Katainen spoke in Strasbourg at a press conference presenting a commission paper titled "A European strategy for plastics in a circular economy".

The circular economy is a concept in which materials are reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.

The strategy paper, agreed by the college of commissioners earlier on Tuesday, announced several measures aimed at reducing plastic waste and incentivising recycling. It did not include a proposal for a plastic tax.

What the text of the strategy paper did include was the following phrase: "Furthermore, the commission will explore the feasibility of introducing measures of a fiscal nature at the EU level."

Katainen said that the commission will look at the options, but that it was "too early to promise anything".

"We have not yet found a way to introduce European-wide plastic tax," he said.

However, around the same time of the press conference, Oettinger published a short entry on his commission blog.

"One week after I have presented my idea on a plastic levy, we made a big step forward," Oettinger wrote.

"So glad my fellow commissioners took up my idea of a plastic levy," he said.

The 346-word blog contained three of Oettinger's thoughts on possible characteristics of the potential tax.

The centre-right German also posted a tweet writing that his fellow commissioners "backed my idea".

He posted a photo of the text and highlighted the sentence that said the commission "will explore" the options.

At the press conference however, Katainen had already expressed some concerns about relying on a plastic tax as a means to replace the steady stream of income coming from the UK government.

Less plastic = less revenue

"Our colleague Guenther Oettinger mentioned a potential tax on plastic as a potential own resource stream," he said. "But the better plastic strategy implementation we have, the less income we can collect. This is the other side of the coin."

"Whether we manage to find a well-functioning European-wide tax on plastic, I have my doubts," Katainen added.

Earlier in the day, MEP Kathleen Van Brempt also questioned whether a plastic tax would lead to a stable stream of resources for the EU budget.

"A tax on plastic bags is a sort of tax that you implement to make sure that you get rid of plastic bags," said the centre-left Belgian MEP.

"What you want is that it goes down to zero. So it is not a very good or solid base for ... resources," she added.

A few months ago, commission vice-president Frans Timmermans had already questioned the feasibility of a specific tax on microplastics.

"The only sustainable method is to create recyclable plastic and take out microplastics," the Dutchman said according to The Guardian.

"You can't take out microplastics with a tax. You need to make sure things are reused, and not put in the ocean."

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