We’re drowning in plastic: tell the EU to act!

Plastic waste on the banks of the Danube and swans on the water Plastic waste on the banks of the Danube (© Sarenac / istockphoto.com)

From PET bottles and produce packaging to clothing, plastic is all around us. Yet only 30 percent is recycled in Europe, and the mountains of waste are growing. The EU wants to solve the problem with a new strategy – but not by curbing plastic production. Tell the EU to stop the avalanche of plastic NOW!

Call to action

To: the European Commission, Parliament, Council of Ministers and Member States

More and more plastic waste is blighting the planet, yet the EU is unwilling to curb plastic consumption. Stop the avalanche of plastic without delay!

Read letter

322 million tons of plastic are produced every year, a volume that is set to double over the next twenty years according to EU projections.

Plastics are cheap, versatile and do not biodegrade – and that’s the heart of the ecological problem: the need to recycle or dispose of huge amounts of plastic waste.

Despite waste sorting and recycling schemes, 70% of the EU’s plastic waste is incinerated or ends up in landfills – or as litter. 25 million tons of plastic pollute rivers, oceans and beaches worldwide every year.

In Europe, the Danube alone washes an estimated 1,533 tons of plastic into the Black Sea every year. That corresponds to the loads of 150 garbage trucks, whereby the study that determined that figure only covered medium-sized pieces of plastic.

The plastic waste strategy published by the European Commission on January 16, 2018 notes that plastic particles have become so ubiquitous that they even pollute our air, drinking water and food.

Whether the strategy will succeed in dealing with the problem is highly doubtful, as it does not contain any concrete measures to avoid or curb plastic consumption.

Recycling alone is not the solution: even separately collected, single-variety plastics such as PET beverage bottles are difficult to recycle because recycled PET does not meet manufacturers’ quality requirements. In Germany, for example, three-quarters of PET bottles are downcycled into low-quality films and textile fibers or incinerated. 

While the EU's strategy calls for all plastic packaging being reusable or recyclable by 2030, it targets a recycling rate of merely 55%.

Things can’t go on like this. The environment – and in the end, our health – is paying the price for our plastic madness. Please support our petition to the EU!

Back­ground

Plastic in numbers

(source: A European strategy for plastics)

Plastic production

Worldwide: 322 million tons per year

EU: 49 million tons per year

Plastic waste

EU: 25.8 million tons per year, including 15 million tons per year packaging waste

The EU produces 25.8 million tons of plastic waste – or 50 kg per European – every year. Well over half of that amount (59%) is packaging waste: plastic bags, films, cups, blister packs, etc., that are discarded after a short use.

Where does the EU’s plastic waste go?

- Waste incineration: 10.1 million tons per year (39%)

- Landfill: 8 million tons per year (31%)

- Recycling: 7.7 million tons per year (<30%)

Despite waste separation and recycling schemes and the continuous promises of improvements by business and policymakers, 70% of the EU’s plastic waste is incinerated or dumped in landfills – even though the fossil raw materials required to make plastic are finite.

Less than 30% goes into recycling, and half of that is exported to China and Southeast Asia. Yet China stopped accepting our recycling waste as of January 2018.

The EU’s plastics strategy

The EU plastic strategy is part of the EU action plan for the circular economy, which was adopted in December 2015. With its strategy, the EU hopes to change the way products are designed, manufactured and used. Above all, however, it aims to make recycling a viable business. Whether this will reduce the mountains of plastic waste is highly questionable. Most of the statements are very vague, the targets set are very low and the time periods very long.

The European Commission merely wants to ensure that all plastics in the packaging sector are easily recyclable by 2030. The target set on December 18, 2017 was that 55% of plastic packaging waste should be recycled by 2030 and that plastic waste collected separately for recycling must no longer be dumped at landfill sites.

In practice, recycling mainly means downcycling. Even of practically pure plastics such as PET bottles collected via separate systems (the collection rate in Germany, for example, is 93%), only one third is melted down for the production of new PET bottles. Most PET bottles are downcycled as inferior plastics such as textile fibers, packaging material and films that cannot be recycled after use.

According to the EU, “the Plastics Strategy will make it easier for citizens to identify, separate, reuse and recycle plastics, and it will empower them to make purchasing and lifestyle choices which minimize the impact on the environment. Deposit refund schemes are one example of how consumers can be rewarded for sustainable choices.

Plastic waste in the oceans

Plastics in the marine environment (source: EUNOMIA)

Worldwide: 12.2 million tons per year

EU: 150,000 to 500,000 tons per year

Microplastics pollution in the oceans

- Worldwide: 0.95 million tons per year

- EU: 75,000 – 300,000 tons per year

EU citizens discard vast amounts of plastic packaging as litter. Driven by wind and rain, much of it makes its way into streams and rivers. The final destination of up to 500,000 tons per year of the EU’s plastic waste is the sea.

The vast gyres of plastic in the oceans, which only amount to a tiny fraction of ocean-borne plastic (only 1% of the plastic waste floats on the water surface, 5% washes up on the coasts and 94% sinks to the seabed), kill thousands of seabirds, whales and sea turtles. The fish we rely on for food now also contain plastic particles.

With regard to plastic pollution of the oceans, the EU states:

“The most commonly found single-use plastics items in beach litter are: cigarette butts, drinks bottles and their caps/lids, cotton bud sticks, sanitary towels, bags, crisps packets and sweets wrappers, straws and stirrers, balloons and balloon sticks, food containers, cups and cup lids, and cutlery.

According to recent scientific data, single-use plastics represent half of all marine litter. It has been forecast that by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans, by weight.”

However, the EU does not propose any specific measures with which to counter plastic pollution in oceans:

The Plastic Strategy proposes to look into actions to specifically tackle single-use plastic items and other marine litter, including lost or abandoned fishing gear.” ... Citizens will be empowered to take actions to clean up plastic waste, for example through the European Solidarity Corps for young people.”

Microplastics

The European plastics strategy does not contain concrete guidelines for the introduction of regulations on microplastics. Once in the ocean, microplastic particles are virtually impossible to clean up. It is therefore crucial to prevent them from reaching the ocean via sewage systems and rivers.

The European Commission’s position:

Microplastics consist of plastic particles smaller than 5 mm. These end up in surface waters and the marine environment either because they are intentionally used in products to perform a certain function (e.g. microbeads as peeling substances in cosmetic products) or because they are produced by the decomposition of larger plastic parts and by the wear and tear of products (e.g. as vehicle tires wear or textiles are washed).  

The Commission has begun with the registration, evaluation, authorization and control of chemicals under REACH to restrict the use of products containing intentionally added microplastics.

Regarding the unintentional release of microplastics, the Commission is currently examining possibilities such as labeling, minimum product design and shelf life requirements, methods for assessing the quantities and distribution pathways of microplastics in the environment and promoting targeted research and innovation.

Biodegradable plastics

More than 90% of plastics are produced from crude oil. 0.5 to 1% of plastics are produced from biomass, carbon dioxide or methane.

The EU states:

Biodegradable and compostable plastics may be used as an alternative to conventional plastics.

But in the absence of clear labeling or marking for consumers, and without adequate waste collection and treatment, they could aggravate plastics leakage. They usually degrade only under specific conditions and require special facilities. If they enter regular plastic recycling streams they may compromise the quality of recyclates or materials to be recycled. Moreover, if they become litter they cause just as much harm to ecosystems and can take many decades to degrade, particularly in the ocean.

The Commission will propose harmonized rules for defining and labeling compostable and biodegradable plastics to empower consumers to make the right choice.

New rules on labeling will help consumers see through false green claims and opt for compostable and biodegradable plastics, where this is the better choice. The Commission will develop lifecycle analysis to identify the conditions where the use of biodegradable or compostable plastics may be beneficial.

As regards so-called oxo biodegradable plastics, there is no evidence that they offer any advantages over conventional plastics. They do not biodegrade and their fragmentation into microplastics causes concern. Taking into account these concerns, the Commission will start work to restrict the use of oxo-plastics in the EU.

Sources

- European Commission, January 16, 2018: A European strategy for plastics in a circular economy

European Commission press release, January 16, 2018: Plastic Waste: a European strategy to protect the planet, defend our citizens and empower our industries

European Commission fact sheet, January 16, 2018: Questions & answers: a European strategy for plastics

- EUNOMIA, June 2016: Plastics in the Marine Environment

- EUNOMIA, 2016: Study to support the development of measures to combat a range of marine litter sources. Report for the European Commission DG Environment

- Lechner et.al. 2014: The Danube so colourful: A potpourri of plastic litter outnumbers fish larvae in Europe's second largest river

Letter

To: the European Commission, Parliament, Council of Ministers and Member States

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ever-increasing masses of plastic waste are endangering the environment and human health.

The EU’s response to this has been completely inadequate. Instead of cutting plastic consumption, the European Commission merely intends to ensure that all plastic waste can be recycled by 2030, as stated in the plastics strategy it published on January 16, 2018.

The strategy does not spell out specific requirements to that effect. For example, the recycling rate of plastic packaging is still expected to be only 55% in 2030.

We call on you to establish clear legal measures and concrete goals, and to take swift action to avoid plastic and reduce plastic waste to zero – in all fields of application. In the packaging sector, the use of plastic and the waste of resources must be stopped without delay and exports of plastic waste out of Europe must be prohibited. Please put an end to the pollution of the environment with plastic waste, including microplastics, at once.

Yours faithfully,

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