Published April 24, 2018

The EU can be a leading developer of plastic alternatives

It is vital for us to develop plastics recycling and reuse. However, that’s not enough: we also have to try to reduce the amount of waste produced.
Writer
Member of the European Parliament and Vice-President of the European Parliament, European Parliament
Heidi Hautala is a long-serving Member of the European Parliament and a vice-president responsible for the European Parliament’s environment management system. She is the former Minister for International Development and State Ownership Steering in Finland.

Nearly three years ago the European Parliament discussed the plastic bag directive. People were clearly interested in the plastic problem even then. Even so, the atmosphere was electric when I led the parliamentary session in January where two vice presidents – Katainen and Timmermans – presented the EU’s plastics strategy. It was a pleasure to hear the views of the representatives, nearly all of whom praised the commission and encouraged it to be ambitious in the legislative proposals being developed to implement the strategy.

It’s wonderful to see that the European Commission is finally taking the problem seriously and doing something about it. More and more organisations have recognised the scale of the problem. Less than one third of plastic waste in the EU is recycled, one third ends up in landfills and slightly more than one third is burned. And large amounts of plastic waste still end up in our waters.

A lot of plastic waste was previously dumped in China, but China has now banned its import. China’s real reason for this may be protectionism, which is forbidden in trade regulations, an issue that the commission is investigating. However, instead of looking for new dumping sites, the EU should take action and handle the problem itself – in a sustainable way.

One of the targets of the commission’s plastics strategy is to ensure than in 2030 all of the plastic used in the EU area can be recycled or reused. More efficient recycling will create new markets and jobs and increase the value of recycled plastic. The commission reported that it is simultaneously trying to protect the environment and create growth and innovations. Perhaps we’re finally moving away from the destructive polarisation between the environment and the economy?

It’s essential to develop recycling and the reuse of plastics. However, that won’t be enough: we must reduce the amount of waste produced and create new, sustainable alternatives to plastic. A real circular economy is based on the idea that we have less unnecessary material to begin with.

Nearly 60 per cent of the waste produced comes from plastic packaging, and the disposable nature of this material is a huge problem. Although materials that can replace single-use plastics have already been developed, there is still a great demand and need for new innovations. Sustainable alternatives benefit the environment and companies.

New innovations require investments, but they also produce work, more sustainable solutions and ready operating models. Companies need proven models that they can implement. The knowledge, technology and opportunities already exist. EU-level investment is required to develop innovations, but individual member countries can also achieve a lot.

We need everyone to participate in problem solving: researchers, business life and political decision-makers. We also need consumers. People seem to have a great desire to do something, and they need more options. This was what inspired my idea for a Plastic-free March campaign (link in Finnish), which challenges people to avoid single-use plastics as much as possible for one month. Instead of striving for perfection, the aim is to consider how much unnecessary plastic accumulates in a month.

I participated in a recycling industry event in Brussels, where someone aired their suspicion that only 10 per cent of people would adopt this issue and thus nothing would really happen. I can say that even if only 1 in 10 people get involved, that 10 per cent has previously achieved great changes for the good of the environment. This time, opinion formers like the Prince of Wales are part of the campaign.

Now I’m waiting for the commission to provide concrete and ambitious legislative proposals to implement the plastics strategy targets. We have to seize this opportunity.

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