Plastics are high on the agenda this year, and anyone who’s seen Blue Planet II or had a close look at our own beaches, can see that we have managed to create quite the mess in the few decades since plastic products became mainstream; plastic production has multiplied twentyfold since the 1960s!
In January 2018 the European Commission published their Strategy on Plastics in the Circular Economy, which sets out goals to reduce plastic use, increase the rate of recycling, and ensure that by 2030 all plastics produced are reusable or recyclable. The strategy will also restrict the use of intentionally added microplastics in products such as cosmetics and detergents under the REACH legislation, which regulates the use of chemical substances and their impact on human health and the environment.
While we are very pleased to see the European Commission taking action on the plastic pollution crisis and moving towards a circular economy, we believe we need more ambitious goals to truly reduce the impact of plastic on our health and our environment: “we cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution!”. Zero Waste Europe, part of the European wide NGO coalition Rethink Plastic, provide a set of suggestions in their position paper.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics: a false solution for plastic pollution?
The current growing concern over plastic pollution has led to a mushrooming of supposedly more sustainable alternatives. Biodegradable and compostable plastics are presented as environmentally friendly alternatives, but in the absence of clear labelling the differences between them, and misleading or greenwashing of information, are often not clear to customers.
Biodegradable plastic, also called oxo-degradable plastic, does indeed break down faster than other plastics, but is ultimately still plastic and not a organic/biological material. What happens with biodegradable plastics, is that they break down rapidly in producing small fragments and tiny pieces of plastic, contributing to microplastics pollution.The European Commission has shown an intent to restrict the use of oxo-plastic, which is something we definitely support.
Compostable packaging, on the unlike biodegradable plastic, is not a petroleum based plastic, but is made from polymers of organic material like corn starch or sugarcane for example. This material is not harmful like biodegradable plastic, and can be composted, however it composts only under specific conditions that can only be achieved in an industrial composter. Only very few compostable plastic products will compost in a home compost bin. Compostable plastic and packaging can provide an alternative to current single-use plastics, but will need to be composted industrially and are ideally produced from waste- or by-products of other processes rather than relying on virgin resources. The organic waste scheme that is currently still in its pilot phase, will be implemented nationwide, and compostable waste collected from households will be all composted in industrial bio-composters.
This does not, however, solve the initial issue of the excessive amount of packaging waste!
The real solution
In 2015 close to 60% of plastic waste generated in the EU was plastic packaging. This is where we can all make a difference! Cut down on single use plastics by bringing your own bottle, cup, and cutlery with you, refusing straws and other single use plastic, bringing reusable bags for shopping and produce, and asking your workplace and favorite cafe for a water refill station. Collectively we need to make changes at home, at our workplaces, at schools, and put pressure on businesses, demanding better options. The first step to the solution is reduction of waste which was not stressed enough in the Strategy on Plastics in the Circular Economy.
Have your say and contribute to the Public Consultation on Reducing Marine Litter (until 12 February 2018). If you would like to access a template on how to fill this in, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take the Plastic Free Pledge and discover our Plastic Free Malta Map.
Join our Zero Waste Camp to learn how to cut down on plastic in your life and campaign for a zero waste society: 24/25 March, save the date!