Europe stemming the tide of plastic pollution
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
The European Commission's proposal to ban plastic straws, plates, cutlery and drink stirrers, and slash the consumption of many other single-use products, is more than just a nice, novel idea. It's a step urgently needed from every country — as plastic trash pours into the oceans at the rate of almost 9 million tons a year.
The flood of trash is killing fish, turtles, seals, coral and birds, and getting into the seafood people eat. If no action is taken, over the coming decade it stands to increase tenfold.
The problem stems from the sheer volume of plastic in existence — more than 9 billion tons, most of it produced since 2000 — and from humanity's haphazard efforts to dispose of it. Three-fourths of plastic produced goes to waste, and less than a tenth of that gets recycled, though Europe does a better job than the global average, recycling nearly 30 percent.
Countries with competent waste-management systems bury a lot of the plastic refuse in landfills. But many low- and middle-income countries can't cope with the rising volume, and much ends up getting tossed to the four winds. Abandoned to nature, plastic lasts for centuries, breaking apart into ever smaller pieces but never assimilating into earth or water.
The challenge, first, is to stop any more of this plastic from reaching the ocean. Bigger landfills aren't a lasting solution. Many counties lack adequate space, and unless landfills are well built, they can contaminate surrounding water and soils. Nor would it be wise to expand incineration, presently the fate of about 12 percent of the world's plastic trash. Burning emits toxic residue from softeners and dyes, as well as copious amounts of carbon dioxide. (Plastics, after all, are made of hydrocarbons.)
Fundamentally, too, when plastic is landfilled or incinerated, the opportunity to conserve the energy used to create it is lost, and an endless stream of waste is generated. This is why the EU, like many conservation groups, has adopted a three-R approach: Reduce plastic use, reuse the stuff that's needed, and recycle everything that can't be reused.
The EU's proposed ban is aimed at reducing the most easily substituted plastics - the single-use implements that are often used away from home and littered. They account for 50 percent of trash on EU beaches. And their use is now expanding rapidly in developing countries.
The ban is just one of a set of measures proposed. Eventually, countries would also have to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drink cups, perhaps by encouraging alternatives. Manufacturers of plastic food containers, cigarette filters, fishing gear and other products not banned would be required to help pay for litter prevention and clean-up. The EU aims to increase the amount of plastic that gets recycled to more than 50 percent by 2025, including 90 percent of disposable plastic bottles — by pushing manufacturers to create materials that are easily reusable or recyclable, for instance, and by encouraging a larger market for recycled plastic.
The recycling challenge has become more urgent now that China has stopped doing the job for other countries. Until recently China had been the world's biggest importer of plastic for recycling, and Europe, the biggest exporter.
It will take many months for the EU's plastics proposal to work its way through the European Parliament and the European Council and, if it is approved, years more to phase in. Europe needs to move with all possible speed, and other countries must be quick to follow suit — not just with isolated bans on plastic bags, bottles or straws, but with similarly comprehensive efforts to stem the entire plastic tide.