Have we got the bottle?

By Helen Fairclough

Have we got the bottle?

The evidence is clear, we know there is a problem with plastics. An overwhelming majority of European citizens say they are worried about the impact on their health (74%) and on the environment (87%) of everyday products made of plastics. But are we doing anything about it? 72% of us have cut our use of single plastic bags and 65% of us separate most of our waste for recycling. However, these actions, whilst positive, are not enough. The shocking images of marine animals eating plastic litter and coral reefs covered in plastic debris show we need to do more. Tackling this problem will require global action but we cannot leave it to the politicians to resolve. We need to take individual responsibility for the volume of plastic we use and how we dispose of it. 

Plastics is one of the key items on the EU’s environmental agenda in 2018. In the first month of the year we have already seen the ad

option of a European strategy on plastics. Under the new plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted. The aim is to transform the way products are designed, produced, used, and recycled in the EU. This will lay the foundations for a new plastic economy, where the design and production fully respect reuse, repair and recycling needs and more sustainable materials are developed.

The strategy on plastics is a significant step but I agree with European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans when he says: “This is a challenge that citizens, industry and governments must tackle together.” We as citizens must act now.

Some success has already been achieved in this area through the implementation of the 2015 Plastic Bags Directive. Many of us will recall the quizzical looks we received when refusing such bags a few years ago. Now in many EU countries the avoidance of lightweight plastic bags has become the norm. Nonetheless 100 billion plastic bags are still used each year by the 500 million EU citizens, 200 per person.

Often the scale of these global problems means we fail to act as we think our individual impact is insignificant and imperceptible. But this is an area where the impact of our changes in behaviour can be easily seen in our waste bins. We can reuse our plastic bottles, we can refuse plastic straws, we can take our own cup when we pick up our takeaway coffee and we can buy the products with the least packaging. Initially we might receive that quizzical look but we must ignore it and persist. It will become the norm if we have got the bottle to challenge the status quo. The rise in the profile of the issue in recent months means there are lots of ideas out there on how to reduce our plastic use so we can all seek to overcome our own plastic addictions.

The problem also represents a business opportunity. There is an urgent need for innovation in product design, production and recycling as we transition to a circular economy. Such innovation is encouraged in Europe through research funding, in areas such as alternative feedstocks and making recycling processes more efficient, through cohesion policy funds to increase recycling capacity and initiatives such as the “Circular Economy Finance Support Platform” to raise awareness among investors and facilitate access to finance for circular economy projects. There are also opportunities for recognition of highly innovative products and services that contribute to the sustainable circular economy through the European Business Awards for the Environment, the European Commission’s award scheme to reward innovation through sustainability. I hope this year we will see some exciting applications related to plastics.

Tacking the plastics problem will have an impact in many aspects of our environment by reducing: harmful emissions from burning plastics; dependence on the extraction of fossil fuels for plastics production; and leakage of plastics into the food chain. By making small changes to our behaviour we will make savings personally though reuse, reduce waste disposal costs for the public sector and stimulate the economy through the need for innovation. I would suggest it’s worth putting up with a few quizzical looks to achieve this!