European Union pledges to fight plastic pollution

plastic bottle in water
CC BY 2.0 Kate Ter Haar -- A sad sight we've all seen too often

But its strategy would be far more effective if it focused on reusables, not recycling.

The European Union announced today that it will take aggressive action on plastic. This is happy news to those who have long been concerned about the serious effects of plastic on the environment. The topic is finally hitting mainstream discourse, triggered by events such as China's new ban on plastic imports and BBC's Blue Planet II getting people talking in ways they never have before. Even UK prime minister Theresa May released a plastic plan last week that, despite lacking teeth, indicated awareness of an enormous problem.

Regarding the EU's new promise to take action:

The EU commission met in Brussels to put together its own plastic strategy that will "change minds in Europe, potentially tax damaging behaviour, and modernise plastics production and collection by investing €350m (£310m) in research."

Frans Timmerman, a former Dutch diplomat and vice-president of the commission, told The Guardian that the plan will clamp down on "single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce, you use it for five minutes and it takes 500 years to break down again."

The main targets will be items such as single-use straws, colored plastic bottles, coffee cups, lids, disposable cutlery, stirrers, and takeout packaging. Timmerman said:

"We are going to choke on plastic if we don’t do anything about this. How many millions of straws do we use every day across Europe?

It’s urgent because of the change in the Chinese position. We can’t export these plastics any more to China. The knee-jerk reaction is that we will have to burn or bury it here. Let’s use this opportunity to show we can also recycle it here."

While it's a wonderful move in the right direction, I do feel concern about Timmerman's repeated emphasis on recycling being a solution. One of the commission's main goals is to increase the current plastics recycling rate from 30 percent to 55 percent by 2030; but anyone who's familiar with the plastic problem will know that won't help much.

No matter how dedicated people are to recycling, neither the infrastructure nor the economic value exists for recyclers to recycle everything they get, especially now that China's out of the picture. Even if plastic is recycled, it can only be down-cycled, always reformed into a lesser version of itself, until eventually it goes to landfill.

What we need is a focus on instituting reusables and banning single-use plastics -- not just telling people to recycle. We need a full-on elimination of unnecessary, superfluous plastics from our lives, together with investment in innovative, safely biodegradable packaging alternatives. If only the EU would take that on as its project.

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