Plastics: a societal, educational and innovative challenge

By Miriam DALLI, MEP (S&D Group) coordinator in the ENVI committee

Do you know which one product is common to several sectors such as buildings, packaging, vehicles, electronics and agriculture? Plastics.

The use of plastics has grown exponentially since the 1960s – 20 times higher to be exact it has led to some great and beneficial social, education and technological benefits over time.

It has even become essential in seeing that people do not suffer from hunger and its elimination may very well result in an increase in food waste.

But human behavior is abusing of plastics, catching consumers in a vicious circle.

Plastics have now become a story of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Through their use in food and water packaging, plastics contribute to consumer health and safety. In food packaging, plastics ensure a “safe, time-dependent storage of fresh produce and other food” through means of “temperature and atmosphere control inside the package”.

But what happens once consumers are done with their packaged product?

As consumers, many of us are guilty of adopting lax attitudes in waste disposal. We do not recycle enough. We do not reuse enough. We have to ask ourselves whether weare disposing of waste properly: some do not separate; others simply dump it out on the street; some are even as reckless as throwing waste out of the car’s window or chuck it straight into the ocean from a boat’s deck.

Governments and communities are now investing in educational campaigns and raising awareness. Others have introduced fines. But a cultural change is also needed.

A lot of the waste generated ends up in our oceans. Over the past 10 years, every year some 13 million tonnes of plastic waste entered our oceans. Tiny pieces of plastics, amounting to hundreds of thousands of tonnes, make their way into the food chain as they are absorbed by ocean creatures.

Micro-plastics have been passed up the food chain to fish, and are also a growing human threat to humans health.

Recycling plastic should not be as hard and effective ways of increasing collection rates are needed. Many countries already adopt a deposit scheme for plastic bottles as well as glass ones.

Even my home country of Malta has proposed a cash-for-bottles scheme as it plans to collect more than 70% of the plastic bottles placed on the market by 2019.

A look at EU member states confirms that plastic waste recovery is still very uneven in Europe. According to Conversion Market & Strategy GmbH, landfills are still the first or second option of treatment for plastic postconsumer waste is many countries.

Data published shows that landfill bans foster higher recycling waste: countries with landfill restrictions of recyclable and recoverable waste have, on average, higher recycling rates of plastic post-consumer waste.

› Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30% is collected for recycling
› The plastics industry directly employs over 1.5 million people in Europe
› 27.3% of collected plastic waste in Europe ends up in the landfill
› 31.1% of collected plastic waste is recycled
› 41.6% is used toward energy recovery
› 63% of recycled collected plastic waste is recycled within the EU

The growth of jobs in waste management will be a boon in addressing the challenge of plastics and the future.

The EU is offering practical support to help businesses and citizens through a number of programmes.

In Spain, for example, the European Social Fund committed more than €22 million to a green jobs programme which has helped around 60,000 people acquire skills through 2000 different training courses.

Innovation has brought us bioplastics, which can aid in the process of making an environmentally sound transition towards quality plastic recycling and packaging.

Bioplastics, such as plastics derived from Polylactic Acid, are starch and cellulose based and they are typically derived from corn and sugarcane. Unlike traditional plastics, bioplastics are compostable and recyclable.

Although it is not as durable as other plastics, it has many consumer applications, including uses in food and water packaging.

Innovation will not only create more jobs in recycling, but it can be a means to turn waste into infrastructure: in Colombia, architect Oscar Mendez is building homes out of plastic waste to tackle the issue of urbanization, poverty and high waste.

We need to continue to support efforts in reducing plastic use, such as with reusable water bottles, and reducing tap water phobia. Moreover, increasing water quality in Europe and innovating water purification methods could lead to a decrease in the use of plastic bottling and improve overall health through a decrease in diseases.

According to the World Health Organisation, of the 912 million people living in the WHO European Region, in 2015 more than 62 million lack access to an adequate sanitation facility and 14 million do not use a basic drinking-water source.

An effective strategy is not one which blames a particular element in the hope that fear prompts change.

To the contrary, we need not only to support educational efforts in teaching children the simple alternative methods to make less use of plastic but we need to continue supporting research and innovation as it looks to find sustainable use of plastic and reusing it.