The Brief – Clutching at straws: the low hanging fruit of pointless plastic

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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A ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds was welcomed in the UK yesterday, prompting praise as a win for the environment and a signal that the government means business when it comes to plastic. 

But, as the saying goes, not all that glitters is gold. Sometimes it’s cold, shiny, hard plastic.

Don’t get me wrong. Plastic straws are a completely pointless symbol of our modern throwaway culture and they deserve to be banned.

But beyond the feel-good factor and the stellar PR for the government’s latest effort, we have to face the reality: these types of bans only pay lip service to actual efforts to curb the plastic pollution that pervades every corner of our planet.

Because the move is simply a drop in the proverbial plastic-filled ocean, and shouldn’t be celebrated with much more than a self-congratulatory pat on the back. 

Let’s look at the facts.

In the UK alone, it is estimated that five million tonnes of plastic is used each year, of which straws make up only a minute fraction.

Instead, nearly half of this waste is made up of packaging, a figure which increases to 63% across the EU. 

Not to mention that the vast majority of restaurants had already curbed the use of plastic of their own volition, making the ban an easy win.

So far from concreting the UK’s position as a “world leader” in the effort, as Environment Secretary George Eustice claimed this week, this ban is just the lowest hanging fruit in the drive to protect the environment from plastic pollution. 

And even so, it still took the UK two whole years to implement it after the first consultations opened up in October 2018. 

What’s more, much like its predecessor, the much-lauded 5p (soon due to double to 10p) charge on single-use plastic bags, this type of action shifts the blame on the consumer, rather than the producer.

In doing so, it frames waste as an individual responsibility and diminishes the responsibility of others further up the chain. 

As Emma Priestland, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, pointed out this week, ultimately, we need closer scrutiny on the production side of the equation.

“We need producers to take responsibility for the plastic pollution caused by all their products, whether it’s bags, balloons, packets, containers or otherwise,” she told the BBC earlier this week.

Of course, none of this is a reason not to ban plastic straws and stirrers. But we need hard lines, not easy wins.  

By all means, ban plastic straws – but don’t let it distract from the more systemic actions that are needed to properly tackle our plastic problem.

The Roundup

After weeks of bickering, EU leaders broke a longstanding deadlock to impose sanctions against members of the Belarus regime on Friday night (2 October) and fired a warning at Turkey over its gas drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has suggested that member states could make intergovernmental deals outside the EU institutional framework if the debate about tying rule of law to EU finances delays setting up the recovery fund. 

French President Emmanuel Macron demanded on Friday (2 October) that Turkey explain what he said was the arrival of jihadist fighters in Azerbaijan – and urged NATO to face up to its ally’s actions.

In the latest chapter of the Brexit saga, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will speak by videoconference on Saturday (3 October) in an eleventh-hour bid to “intensify” talks on a post-Brexit trade agreement.

The Commissioner-designate for financial services, Ireland’s Mairead McGuinness, promised on Friday (2 October) a “full investigation” into the Wirecard fraud that has thoroughly shaken up Germany to see why supervision failed.

National measures requiring mandatory labelling of origin and provenance for foodstuff are allowed under the EU law but need to be justified, Europe’s highest court has found.

Also, be sure to check out the latest editions of the Agrifood and Digital Briefs.

Look out for…

The European Commission is set to present its Enlargement Package next week Tuesday.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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