Broken up plastic collected from the ocean

Scientists urge European plastics reform

Europe needs to rethink its entire plastic strategy according to a new report by international scientists at the European Academies of Sciences (EASAC).

The authors of the report, called Plastics Packaging in a Circular Economy, include leading scientists from 28 European countries. They argue that current efforts to resolve the plastics crisis are both ineffective and misleading; requiring fundamental reform to slow the damage done to the environment while offering real-world solutions to the plastic pollution problem.

“Reducing the leakage of millions of tons of plastic waste into the marine, terrestrial and freshwater environments is incompatible with [the] continued growth in the use of plastics”, says EASAC’s Professor Michael Norton. “Macro and microplastics are widespread on land, in the seas and are even found in the air. For many species, plastics are deadly, through entanglement and ingestion, while microplastics are transmitted throughout the food chain. In the history of mankind, the 21st century might actually be remembered as the ‘plastics age’.

According to the report’s authors, voluntary and market mechanisms are proving insufficient to address the problem. Plastics growth is not an option, partly because switching to so-called ‘bio’ materials creates a false image of sustainability and prolongs society’s throw-away mentality. They urge an end to misleading information about bio-based alternatives which they say, scientists see limited potential for.

“We do not question the essential role and benefits of plastics in our way of life. But the warning of our report is not a dystopia of environmental activists. It’s science.”

Based on their findings, EASAC’s scientists have put forward several recommendations to EU policymakers on how to transform the current system. These include a ban on the export of plastic waste, which often ends up in illegal factories or leaked into the local environment and ultimately the oceans. 

The authors of the report recommend exports from the EU and landfill are  stopped. Instead they urge the development of local integrated recycling systems which can deal with all Europe’s plastic waste. 

“Europe should deal with its own waste and not offload it on others less able to deal with it,” says Dr Annemiek Verrips of the Netherlands Academy. “Processing plastic waste in Europe is better from both an environmental and ethical point of view, even if we have to incinerate some of it in waste-to-energy plants.”

Also, the report’s authors urge the adoption of a zero plastic waste to landfill target, consistent with the development of a circular economy for plastics within the EU. They argue that a greater producer responsibility – the so-called polluter-pays principle – should be adopted. 

One of the biggest obstacles is that virgin plastic feedstock continues to be too cheap and represents a fundamental barrier to a greater demand for recycled materials; something EASAC sees as a market failure.

Since the 1960’s global plastic production has increased from 1.5m to almost 400m tons per year, presenting a huge environmental and social challenge that looks set to increase.

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