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Plastic challenges – Europe’s agenda and its multi-layered approach

Plastic challenges – Europe’s agenda and its multi-layered approach

Dealing with plastics is one of the most pressing challenges the EU must answer in its fight against climate change – and it’s prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish its goals

It is well established and widely accepted that the European Union as a whole is the world’s leader against climate change. While some might say that the EU does not go far enough and others can claim that it has gone too far, it is difficult to argue that there are other entities that have been as ambitious as Europe in its plans to protect the environment.

A key part of Europe’s fight against climate change is the handling of plastics – one of the largest polluters of Earth’s bodies of water and among the chief generators of excess waste.

Over the last few years, the EU has developed a strategy and a general approach towards the handling of plastics – an approach that has been widely adopted by its member states and implemented with location- and region-specific twists that could ultimately best serve the continent’s – and the planet’s, climate interests.

A European strategy – a chance to achieve largescale change

Back in 2018, following months and years of arduous work, the European Commission unveiled its landmark plastics strategy – “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”. Within it, the EU’s executive explains the vital role that plastics play in our daily lives and what Europe can do to make them more sustainable and climate-friendly.

According to the Commission, by tackling the plastics problem, Europe can lead the way in fighting climate change and pollution and thus foster innovation and discover new avenues of economic growth within the EU.

By laying out a plan for ambitiously tackling a problem no one has attempted to address at such a large scale before, the European Commission created a strong basis for a Europe that acts as a paragon of climate-friendly activities – while simultaneously reaping all the benefits from such a commitment.

The fight against plastics – rife with challenges and opportunities

When tackling such monumental issues, however, it is completely normal to expect a great amount of opposition from parties and groups with a vested interest in keeping the status quo intact. Yet equally, the opportunities for such change to snowball into positive developments in other facets of life are just as great.

Shortly after the unveiling of the Commission’s plastics strategy, with a green sentiment sweeping across western Europe, the EU’s institutions hammered out a deal in a staggeringly quick fashion that committed the bloc to ban single-use plastics – one of the main contributors to pollution.

According to the Commission’s data, plastic packaging and other such items are responsible for over 50% of plastic waste. Meanwhile, a mere fragment is being recycled and reused in an appropriate manner.

Such figures appear problematic at first glance but have played in Europe’s favour as the EU’s executive has highlighted the many opportunities that tackling this challenge can entail.

Spillover effect

One of the chief problems related to the phasing out of plastics is the loss of jobs. Lobbying groups and businesses have long argued against the Commission’s ambitious anti-plastics plan claiming that thousands of jobs will be lost in the process. Yet even without a concrete strategy in place, Europe has been expanding its recycling capabilities which have been an important generator for growth as well as jobs. According to the Commission, by implementing a wholesale approach, hundreds of thousands of jobs can be created in the field of recycling, dwarfing the short-term issues related to the phase-out of disposables.

A similar spillover effect from the fight against plastics can be found in the negotiations for Europe’s next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). As a result of the negotiations, the Commission was granted the right to collect taxes – for the first time in the bloc’s history which might turn out to be a turning point for the EU’s future. One of the new ways the EU will be able to generate its “own resources” is through the brand-new EU plastic tax which is meant to not only put extra money into the Commission’s coffers but will also incentives member states, businesses and individuals to make the transition to reusable alternatives – two birds with one stone.

Different approaches within a single framework

Europe’s strength lies in its diversity. And while a common framework for tackling the challenges of the future is essential to achieving any objectives that the EU sets for itself, it is the national, regional and local governments across the continent that bear the torch of implementing different strategies and approaches, tailored to the specific needs and expectations of their respective communities and citizens.

On a national level, the anti-plastics strategies of Europe’s governments do not differ all too much on the subject matter – most, if not all, are committed to eliminating or at least reducing to a minimum the prevalence of single-use plastics and are eager to bolster their circular capabilities by improving recycling.

Timetables, however, differ greatly. Some countries have taken on a one-by-one approach, opting to issue targeted bans on specific items, on shorter deadlines, such as Germany’s commitment to ban plastic straws by 2021. Others have opted for a more general approach – such as France, where authorities aim to eliminate single-use plastics in their entirety by 2040, while simultaneously boosting recycling capabilities.

Governments across the continent have also turned to imposing larger and larger fees on plastic products aimed at disincentivizing businesses from using them at all, thus severing the crucial supply chain.

A number of member states will also be putting the money they collect through these new taxes back into other environmentally friendly projects. For example, Greece’s anti-plastic bill foresees the use of the funds collected from new plastic taxes for the protection of the country’s marine life and its habitat, effectively creating a circular chain that protects and safeguards the environment

Municipalities and cities at the forefront of implementing innovative methods

Where one can find striking differences, however, is on the local level. Europe is vast and diverse – so it would only make sense that its many local governments adopt radically different approaches to tackling the plastic problem. Furthermore, it is precisely those officials who have been elected by their fellow citizens in their own cities, towns and villages, who know best how to best approach the issue while simultaneously bringing the most benefits to their respective communities.

The role that local governments and urban centres play in the fight against climate change in general and in this case against plastics is well recognized by officials on national and international levels. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the European Commission has been setting aside funding precisely for initiatives and projects developed by cities meant to tackle plastic pollution under its Horizon 2020 programme.

More often than not, local governments have been faster to act against plastics than their national counterparts. And with them being the ones best positioned to offer tailor-made solutions to their communities, plenty of excellent examples can be given of successful policies that can easily be transformed into wider solutions.

Many local structures have been actively promoting the pro-environment cause by turning it into something beautiful – such as Bielefeld’s plastic rubbish art installations – or into something horrifying, like the Brno Zoo’s plastic-filled aquarium, meant to showcase the consequences of plastic overuse. Other local governments have been implementing educational campaigns and initiatives meant to raise awareness for a healthier and more environmentally conscious lifestyle among their citizens.

And while local governments by definition can not hope to achieve large-scale change, they have been doing so at a micro-level. Starting from a battle for the hearts and minds of their constituents by implementing a myriad of initiatives and going all the way to changing their own habits and implementing decisions that impact their administrations. To lead by example in phasing out and prohibiting the use of plastics has proven an effective tool all the way from Lyon in France to Lithuania's Vilnius. 

It is precisely through these different and approaches that Europe aims to tackle plastics. By creating an overarching framework with an ambitious goal, the European Commission and the member states have taken a responsible stance in the face of climate change.

Allowing the execution and the creation of location-specific policies – and their evident successes, have meanwhile once again demonstrated that the continent can make great strides if it embraces its diversity and uses it for the common good.



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