WHEN UN negotiations over a global agreement on plastic waste convene for a second session this spring, the European Union (EU) will bring evidence that it practices what it preaches.
In November, the European Commission proposed sweeping packaging regulations that would require companies selling products in EU countries to make their packaging easier to reuse, recycle or in some cases compost.
Takeaway food, hot and cold drinks, wine and other alcohol would have to be provided at least partly in reusable packaging by 2030, and the rules would limit unnecessary empty space in packaging. The EU’s overall goal: to reduce packaging waste by 5% by 2030, compared to 2018 levels, and by 15% by 2040.
Many of these policies can also be found in proposals submitted by the EU ahead of the May UN session on plastic waste: minimums on recycled content and reusable packaging, limits on the use of labels claiming biodegradability, and “eco-design” criteria that includes avoiding empty space and promoting durable and refillable packaging. Those objectives also largely reflect the views of the UN negotiations’ “High Ambition Coalition,” a group of countries including EU member states and the UK, Ghana, Senegal, Australia and Canada. The small island states most negatively impacted by marine plastic waste are also calling for better design and reuse.
“The European Union are playing a leading role in advocating for a high-ambition, legally binding global agreement under the UN process to end plastic pollution,” said Steve Fletcher, director of the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the UK’s University of Portsmouth. “The current proposals are aligned with that high ambition that they want to see developed through the treaty process.”
It’s only the beginning. The EU has over the past four years, in legislation and negotiations, begun to make its case for a world less reliant on single-use and virgin plastics. Its vision centers on a global set of rules around the most harmful chemicals used in plastic, a ramping-up of recycled content and reusability, and — most controversially — stricter controls on plastics production. The bloc has also begun tackling possibly its greatest global plastic sin: the wholesale export of waste to developing countries.
The plastic industry is fiendishly complicated and global by nature. Plastic is typically extracted in the form of fossil fuels in one country, then made into nurdles or pellets and shipped somewhere else, where it’s turned into a consumer product, shipped again, and finally sold. After it’s used, most plastic is sent to a landfill or incinerator, and what gets recycled often still ends up polluting rivers and oceans. No matter how it’s disposed of, each kilo of plastic that comes on to the market has already caused almost 3 kg of greenhouse gas emissions through its production; if incinerated, that adds another 2.7 kg, according to the EU’s estimates.
As a result, reforming the plastics industry is also fiendishly complicated. The companies that make and sell plastic work across the globe, and there are no universal standards for their claims around bioplastic, biodegradability, compostability, reusability and recyclability. Guidance and labels for consumers are confusing or nonexistent.
Into this maelstrom comes the EU. Although its vision for a UN plastics agreement will have to be reconciled with that of more than 100 other countries, the bloc is a powerful influence. Its decisions have a wider impact than its borders, both on the companies that supply EU consumers and on the governments of the nations around it. Its proposed plastics rules are also more systemic, comprehensive and wide-ranging than previous efforts, and more likely to be effective than piecemeal bans on individual products. There’s a realistic chance that the EU’s standard becomes the de facto global standard, which would make the bloc something of a global plastics sheriff.
“Of course, we are always happy when our regulation is followed by others,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the environment, told Bloomberg Green in an interview. “I think in UNEA everyone recognized that plastic is becoming a growing issue and we should not be naive about recycling our way out of it.” That said, “a sheriff is someone who watches for the others. We are not going to be doing that,” Mr. Sinkevičius said. “But we are always happy when our legislation is being taken as the leading one.”
EU policy is already having an impact. In 2019, the bloc launched a Single Use Plastics Directive that banned polystyrene plates and cups, as well as single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds. It also required PET bottles to contain a minimum of 25% recycled plastic, and mandated plastic-bottle caps stay attached to reduce littering.
England, Scotland and Wales have since announced or implemented almost identical bans, while aspiring EU members such as Montenegro, Serbia and Albania have to add the directive to their domestic legislation, in order to be able to join. Coca Cola’s “tethered” bottle caps, a result of the regulations, were also adopted in Britain last year, despite its departure from the EU.
The EU isn’t the only governing body making moves on plastic, and the new world it seeks to encourage isn’t entirely novel. In some South American countries, for example, Coca-Cola sells over 60% of its products in refillable packaging. Many other nations were ahead on restricting single-use plastic bags: Bangladesh was the first to introduce a total ban in 2002, while the EU’s directive only encourages reductions. And several US states have deposit-return schemes, known locally as “bottle bills,” which encourage consumers to return containers for a small refund. In the EU, they are currently standard only in Germany.
But the EU’s legislation is unique in the sense that it tackles packaging as a whole, rather than focusing only on plastic. It also reflects a wider effort by the bloc to influence global environmental policy through “green diplomacy.”
“There is this willingness from the EU to be the green deal leader and the environmental leader globally,” said Justine Maillot, coordinator of the campaign group Break Free From Plastic Europe. “If some big companies are starting to change the way they produce their packaging for the EU market, they may also do the same for other markets.”
Public opinion is also providing a tailwind, Mr. Sinkevičius said, and solutions seen to be working in one place can provide fodder for citizens of other countries looking to apply pressure to their governments. Already, some EU members are racing ahead: In France, a ban on plastic packaging for produce and in fast food restaurants took effect this year.
“It’s very well supported by the citizens,” Mr. Sinkevičius said, adding that the single-use plastic directive “passed the EU legislation so quickly because citizens were all along the process ensuring that it moves quickly.”
Putting in place domestic legislation is a way to add weight and leadership to international negotiations, Fletcher at the Global Plastics Policy Centre said: “I see the [EU’s] motivation as being a bit more positive, around leading by example and really demonstrating that if you have the political commitment you can implement quite strong reforms to the plastics economy.”
To some degree, the EU’s hand is also being forced: The plastic waste that the bloc’s countries do produce has a shrinking pool of possible destinations. For years, China was the chief recipient of the world’s plastic waste, and imported roughly half of it until the country banned such imports in 2017. Thailand and Turkey have also restricted imports of plastic waste, and a separate law banning plastic waste exports to developing countries was approved by the European Parliament last month.
That urgency is part of why Mr. Sinkevičius is trying to sell the plastics crackdown as a positive for European business, which can claim first-mover advantage in areas like reusability. “The moment you ship your waste away, you kill any innovation,” he said. “We’re talking not only about reuse — we’re also talking about longer-lasting plastics that can be used for a long time. I think that would be something that would be very much appreciated across the world.”
Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, policy officer at the nonprofit European Environmental Bureau, says higher fossil-fuel costs will also make efforts to create resource-efficient packaging “increasingly interesting from an economic perspective.”
Of course, when the next UN negotiations kick off in May, the EU’s tougher packaging rules will still be an open question. The proposal has yet to clear the European Parliament and Council, and already faces opposition from the plastics, glass and paper industries. There are also implementation concerns to work through, as compliant EU businesses would depend on the enforcement of import standards. And while the new rules are binding for EU member states — creating a harmonious system without the need for separate domestic laws — that also means identical policies will have to be implemented in countries with wildly different waste infrastructures.
Finally, there’s the sheer scale of the waste in question, which continues to grow. In 2020 alone, the EU produced almost 80 million metric tons of packaging waste. Reducing that by 5% would only take the bloc’s waste levels back a few years — and do nothing to erase past damage. “If we went in a time machine back to 2018, it’s not like we’re living in a world free of packaging waste,” Mr. Schweitzer said. “In the same way that in the wild west, the sheriff normally also was guilty of committing his fair share of crimes, I think this is definitely the case for the EU as well.” — Bloomberg