People must overhaul their habits of “unadulterated consumerism” if the EU is to curb its huge waste problem, British actor Jeremy Irons told a conference in Brussels.

The European Commission hosted the conference with Irons and Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik to announce the publication on Thursday (7 March) of the EU’s green paper on plastic waste while promoting the actor’s new documentary, ‘Trashed’.

The green paper aims to launch discussions about how to make plastic products more sustainable throughout their life cycle and reduce the impact of plastic discards on the environment.

“We have to take more time. We have time for things we think are important. If people were made aware of the follow on [of waste disposal]… Unadulterated consumerism will not work”, Irons told reporters.

“Now it is really time to think. The old model, especially in this part of the world, hasn’t worked well.”

The Oscar-winning actor admitted he was a “flag-waver, not a policymaker”, but was attempting to raise awareness about the effects of plastic waste, including the leaking of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. He also said he wants to change of waste habits and promote recycling.

The EU has a variety of waste rules - including the 19-year-old Packing and Packaging Waste Directive and the 2008 Waste Framework Directive. But there is no specific target for plastics recycling, and their growing environmental impact has prompted calls for specific regulation.

While the amount of recycling has increased, the EU still landfills or incinerates 60% of its municipal waste, according to Eurostat. Just 25% of non-decomposable plastic is recycled, and it represents 80% of marine litter.

Throw-away society

Potočnik stressed the need for societal change to curb the impacts of waste and drawing attention to regions in Italy and Spain’s Basque Country - Capannori and Gipuzkoa - which had managed to reduce their waste output to near zero.

“Plastic is often perceived as a cheap and disposable material in our ‘throw-away’ society, and recycling rates are low,” he said. “Half of all plastic waste generated in Europe goes to landfill which should be avoided as plastic can contain hazardous components and disposal can result in undesirable emissions and concentrated, polluting residues.”

But to Potočnik waste disposal presents a “huge opportunity” for resource efficiency. He conceded that the world relies on plastics for many industries, saying that he was “for the dematerialisation of industry in a way that keeps industry in Europe”.

The commissioner echoed Irons’ calls for the rest of the world to pursue more sustainable disposal policies. “With the world’s population growing there is no chance of repeating some of the development paths of the West,” he said.

Irons criticised the waste disposal business for its “vested interests”, which were preventing society from tackling full on the problem of plastic waste in the same way that it tackled drink driving. “I hope some people will be embarrassed out of their comfortable way of living,” he said.

Public consultation under the green paper will last until the beginning of June 2013, resulting in further policy action on plastic waste in 2014. The EU executive is pursuing a separate regulatory proposal on the issue of one-use plastic bags.