Prevention is crucial to tackling plastic waste crisis
Plastic waste remains a huge and growing problem. But what is the European Union doing to address the issue?
Ioannis Bakas, the EEA’s waste prevention expert gives a brief overview of the EEA’s report on preventing plastic waste in Europe, which was published earlier this month.
What is the new EEA report about? Are European countries doing enough to tackle the problem?
The EEA report ‘Preventing plastic waste in Europe’ reviewed initiatives by EEA member countries on preventing plastic waste. We try to map and analyse the types of measures that they have been taking to reduce the amount of plastic waste or reduce amount of hazardous substances in plastic waste. The EU Member States mostly rely on their waste prevention programmes to structure their prevention efforts around plastic waste. But these include more broad measures and may not necessarily target specifically plastic but packaging in general. However, our analysis found that on plastic carrier bags, Member States are really doing a lot. They have been very active and there have been impressive results in reducing their use.
How big a problem is plastic waste in Europe?
Plastic waste has received a lot of attention of late, including marine litter. But the main problem with plastic is that we keep consuming more and more and inevitably that becomes waste. We will see more and more plastic waste being generated in the future and we need to deal with that. In terms of prevention, I think the focus on packaging waste is correct because it is the largest share of plastic products that we consume, followed by plastics found in electronics and construction. Another problem is that we do not yet have concrete targets to address the problem. Targets can work as motivation. Currently we recycle approximately about a third of the plastic waste generated, an increasing trend, although this includes exports outside of the EU. This EEA report does not deal with waste management and exports, but that will be the topic of another upcoming EEA briefing on plastic waste exports. Still, given the increasing consumption, plastic waste prevention will play a key role in managing the quantities of waste being generated.
The report identifies plastic packaging as a major problem. What needs to be done to reduce and prevent such waste?
In terms of waste prevention and specifically plastics, as we say in the report, there is a lot to be done to come up with more targeted measures, like for example, target the most polluting plastic types, like single use packaging. Developments such as the rising use of online shopping has increased packaging, and we are playing catch-up on how to handle this increased stream of waste. Existing measures are mostly generic and target plastic products across the board. The measures are also of a soft nature such as informative or voluntary agreements. More targeted and specific measures are needed, such as the ones described in the new Single Use Plastics Directive. Also, countries would benefit if they diversified their measures by implementing other types such as market-based instruments, extended producer responsibility schemes with fee modulation, etc.
What is the EU doing in this field?
The European Commission and the EU now have a(adopted in 2018) in place and the European Parliament and EU Member States recently finalised and the Single Use Plastics Directive. These two recent examples of Commission efforts are not yet reflected in our report’s mapping of national waste prevention measures. But the transposition of the Directive and inspiration from the plastic strategy are both expected to have an impact on national measures targeting plastic waste prevention in the near future.
What is the EEA role in plastic waste prevention?
The EEA has published a series of reports on waste prevention since 2013; this is the last report of the series. This report reviews the current state of play and offers some future perspectives. We don’t have specific policy recommendations, that’s not our role. We mostly try to map the situation in the EEA countries and come up with some options for improvement. The EEA has a mandate to monitor progress of waste prevention and the evolution towards decoupling of waste generation from economic growth. From now on, according to the amended legislation, we will publish reports every two years on waste prevention, on a different topic each time, but always having in mind the monitoring of progress and evaluation of implementation by EU Member States. We will publish the next one in 2021. The EEA also produces fact sheets, which map the implementation at country level and are currently being updated.