EU Strategy

Clearing Europe's beaches of plastic trash

ALBA-Recyclinganlage
Workers at a recycling center in Berlin sort plastics for reuse. Source: Robert Schlesinger

Fearing that there will soon be more plastic in the sea than fish, the European Union on Tuesday issued far-reaching new plans to reduce plastic waste and encourage recycling of the chip bags and soft drink bottles that now foul most continental beaches.

Europeans produce 26 million tons of plastic waste every year, but recycle only about 30 percent, with the rest ending up in landfill or being burned. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that over the next 30 years, it’s likely that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight, meaning plastics will increasingly enter the food chain with unknown risks to health.

Germany in particular needs to take greater action on recycling because it used to send approximately 10 percent of its plastic trash to China, but that country has stopped taking it since the beginning of the year.

“I’m open to this intriguing idea, but I’m not sure it is workable.”

Jyrki Katainen, European Commission Vice President

With its plastics recycling strategy paper published Tuesday, the European Union is trying to ramp up recycling efforts without endangering jobs in the European plastics industry, which employs an estimated 1.5 million people.

Since Europe now faces a huge revenue shortfall because Britain is leaving the EU. Budget Commission Günther Oettinger proposed that the EU put a tax on plastics, which would incentivize recycling while at the same time raising money for cash-strapped Brussels.

“I’m open to this intriguing idea, but I’m not sure it is workable,” said European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen told Handelsblatt. But the idea of a pan-European tax is unpopular in a continent where taxation is handled by national governments, not the EU.

Europeans are already pretty peeved about paying for biodegradable shopping bags used in supermarkets for fruit and vegetables instead of the free plastic bags they had become accustomed to using. Violent arguments erupted at checkout counters across Italy after the biodegradable bag rule went into effect at the beginning of the year.

The EU issued a plastic bag directive in 2015 requiring members states to cut the consumption of throwaway plastic bags by charging for them or setting national reduction targets. By the end of 2019 consumers can use no more than 90 plastic bags per year on average, falling to 40 bags per year in 2025. The average was 200 per year when the directive was issued.

Now the EU is setting its sights on other forms of plastic. They include microplastics, which are particles smaller than 5mm that are used as exfoliating agents in cosmetics, which will be restricted in the future, and so-called single-use plastics such as chip bags, candy wrappers, food containers and cups, lids and cutlery, which are rarely recycled and constitute half of all marine litter. The EU said “preparatory work has started on a legislative initiatives on single-use plastics,” following the same approach as it used for bags.

As a result, the recycling of plastics, which is at the core of the Commission’s strategy, could soon become a lucrative business. The EU estimates that for single-use items like beverage bottles, about 95 percent of the value is lost, totaling €100 billion a year.

Up until now, recycling hasn’t been worth it because the prices paid for recycled plastic are low and it’s often cheaper to make it new because oil prices are low. Oil is the main ingredient used in plastics. But thanks to China’s recent ban on imported plastic garbage, the price has risen significantly.

“I have to thank China because this is an excellent opportunity for us to creatre a functioning internal market for plastic waste,” said Mr. Katainen.

The goal is to target recycling 65 percent of plastic packaging by 2025 and 70 percent by 2030.

“Today’s situation where 31 percent of plastic waste goes to landfill and 39 percent to incineration means loss of precious resources and is not acceptable,” the Commission said in a statement. “This will require investment in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure and improving the traceability of materials so that the correct recycling technology can be applied.”

Perhaps then you will be able to visit a European beach without encountering piles of plastic trash.

Till Hoppe is based in Brussels for Handelsblatt and covers the European Union. Charles Wallace is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: hoppe@handelsblatt.com and C.Wallace@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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