Banning single-use plastics is a typical example of good intentions triumphing over sound judgement
Frits Bolkestein // 22 October 2018
The author is the former European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services.
With the Commission and Parliament both starting their last legislative year, one of the last challenges left on the political agenda is what to do about single-use plastics. The proposal currently making its way through Parliament is to ban the sale of products made from single-use plastics, from cotton buds to plastic straws. Member States are expected to increase efforts to collect used single-use drinks bottles, with a 90% collection target set for 2025. The costs for this scheme are to be funded by business, which is also expected to pay for new waste management programmes and clean-up schemes.
According to Commissioner Frans Timmermans, the current draft regulations aim for nothing less than a ‘global race to the top’ in the cleaning up of the world’s oceans, our environment, our food and even our bodies. It’s hard not to be in awe of such noble aims. After all, who doesn’t want cleaner oceans, food, and bodies? Still, any proposal can only be truly impressive when its outcomes are as inspiring as its intentions. This is where the proposal in its current form will end up falling short.
Banning single-use plastic may sound like an easy thing to agree on. In practise, it’s anything but easy to find other products that serve the same purpose with the same degree of reliability. We rely on single-use plastics for any number of things: to keep our food fresh or to keep our medical instruments sterilized. Replacing these kinds of plastics is a serious R&D challenge. There may be alternatives to normal plastics, for example bio-polymers (plastics made from biomass sources). The problem is, however, that industry is currently not able to produce these at anywhere near the scale required to replace traditional single-use plastics.
If we can’t replace single-use plastics with something equally effective, we run the risk of creating a host of new problems. Without single-use plastics, our food would start to decay much more quickly. The resulting food waste would force us to increase food production, which leads to strains in land and water management. Emissions of CO2 and methane would rise. The costs would be felt not just by governments but also by ordinary consumers, who would now have to replace products in their fridges and store cupboards much more regularly.
An additional problem is that even if we could replace single-use plastics, the alternatives aren’t necessarily much cleaner when they end up in the environment. Most compostable alternatives can only be effectively disposed of in specialist composting facilities, of which we currently have precious few. If they end up anywhere else, they’ll be just as polluting as normal plastics.
This gets us to the real problem: recycling. Or rather: the lack of it. Because what should really be the EU’s top priority right now when it comes to environmental issues is getting Member States to make good on their promise to recycle at least 50 percent of all municipal waste. This wouldn’t just be good politics, it would be good business too. According to Commissioner Jyrki Katainen, just 5 percent of the EU’s plastics are currently recycled, which means around 100 billion euros worth of plastic is lost to the European economy every year. If we can recycle even a fraction of that, it would already do more to protect the environment and boost our economies than the current proposal.
The Parliament gets to discuss these proposals in its plenary session later this month. It would do well to reconsider them. They would hurt consumers and do little actually to protect the environment. It would do better to focus on making sure Member States meet their already agreed recycling targets. That would be a win for environment and consumers alike.