Karmenu Vella: ‘Well-designed’ plastics tax could help hit environment targets

EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella [European Commission]

As the European Commission sketches out its vision for the future of plastic production and pollution in its new strategy, the EU executive’s environment chief, Karmenu Vella, explained how developments in China, Africa and Europe itself have shaped its plastics roadmap.

Karmenu Vella is the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s energy and environment reporter, Sam Morgan.

China’s ban on plastic imports came into effect at the beginning of the month and member states seem to have been caught off guard. Does the Commission address this development specifically in the strategy and, if so, how?

With our plastics strategy, we are laying the foundations for a new plastics economy. We want to transform the way plastics and plastic products are designed, produced, used, and recycled, because the current system is causing far too much waste. Some 95% of the value of plastic packaging worth up to €105bn is lost to the economy every year, and we still only recycle 30% of our plastic waste in Europe.

The Chinese ban is an opportunity – it gives us a chance to rethink our approach to plastics. The measures in our Plastics Strategy, together with the ambitious new EU recycling targets on which the European Parliament, Council and Commission reached a political agreement in December, will boost the necessary transition in the plastics sector.

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Was the strategy’s release delayed because of the Chinese decision?

No. Drawing up this first-ever Europe-wide strategy was an inclusive process that involved broad consultation of stakeholders and many different services inside the Commission helped to shape it. President Juncker set up a core project team to look at the new plastics economy and to ensure it contributes to broad political priorities. The strategy on the table is a comprehensive policy response to the plastic challenge, tackling design, manufacturing, use and disposal. A process like that takes time.

Marine litter and plastic pollution, while not a new problem, have recently captured the public’s imagination. Does the timing of the strategy, therefore, mean that its proposals will move quickly through the legislative chain because of this support, in your view?

We do indeed have the wind in our sails. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that citizens are extremely worried about the impact of plastic on the environment and on health. They don’t want plastic waste ending up in the oceans. They don’t want birds, turtles and sealife getting tangled in plastic bags and old fishing nets. They don’t want microbeads in cosmetics. I am confident that member states and the Parliament will respond positively to our bundle of measures, and support the long-term goal that all plastic packaging on the EU market shall be recyclable by 2030. But industry has a key role to play as well. In this sense I welcome the important first step from business stakeholders who have come forward with a number of voluntary commitments.

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To what extent does the strategy focus on prevention of the plastic problem rather than mitigation? Campaigners are mostly divided between cutting off plastic production at source and recycling our waste in a more efficient manner.

We won’t tackle the plastic challenge just by concentrating more on prevention or mitigation, because we need a much broader approach. It’s really a question of the way we produce plastics and how we use them. We need to look at the whole picture, from design to manufacturing to use, disposal and recycling. The way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded fails to capture the economic benefits of a more circular approach and harms our environment. 

The strategy will change this. By improving plastic design and plastic product design, and boosting separate collection, re-use and recycling, it will help “close the plastic loop”. New rules on packaging will improve its recyclability. This will deliver greater added value and prosperity in Europe, and it will help to stem the tide of plastic waste.

Your colleague, Günther Oettinger, raised the idea last week of taxing plastic production, which could help the EU fill its Brexit budget shortfall. What are your thoughts on this idea?

The Brexit gap and new priorities of the next decade present a real challenge for the EU budget. As part of the reflections on own resources for the EU budget the idea of a plastics tax came up more recently. Plastic waste is an EU-wide problem. We need measures to reduce its unnecessary generation, to encourage the reuse of plastic packaging and to incentivise a shift towards recyclable plastic materials by industry. A well-designed tax could be one of several instruments to deliver on these environmental objectives and provide budgetary income. We are at the early stages of our broad reflection. But the ball is rolling and I am very happy about starting this discussion now, because it’s a conversation that we absolutely need to have as there are many angles to be explored.

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What is the Commission’s position on bans? Germany is mulling the idea of asking the executive to come up with a proposal to ban microplastics in cosmetics and banning plastic bags is routinely called for by environmental groups. Can the market and industry be trusted to make voluntary contributions?

There are many roads that lead to Rome. The first and most important step is to agree on a shared vision – then we can choose the most appropriate means to achieve it. Bans are one possible way of making sure that we protect people’s health and the environment. As for microplastics, we are indeed working on restricting their use in certain products, such as cosmetics. To cut consumption of single-use plastic bags we have set clear and binding targets, leaving member states the flexibility to choose the most efficient way of reaching them, be it charges or other forms of restrictions. And these measures are working: 72% of citizens say they cut their use of single-use bags, 38% of them last year.

The UN recently met to discuss pollution at its high-level meeting in Nairobi. Did any fresh ideas or solutions to the problems caused by plastics emerge at that summit?

That UN Environment Assembly was the most successful so far. Unlike before, we had formal conclusions adopted at ministerial level and it culminated in a strong and joint political commitment to act on pollution. In particular, we agreed to act on the scourge of plastic waste. What was new and very inspiring was the intense involvement of private sector and civil society displaying solutions and technology to fight pollution. This showed consistency with the important role they play in tackling pollution.

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A non-binding resolution agreed in Nairobi hopes to address the problem. Do you see the plastic strategy as a complement to the work being done at UN level? Could it act as a model to be copied by other countries, regions of the world?

The announcement of twenty voluntary commitments from the EU showed how we are setting the pace on international environmental action in many areas. With the Plastics Strategy we demonstrate that our commitment is being followed up with tangible actions, leading by example. By breaking linear economic thinking, we can ensure recycling is profitable and inspires other economies worldwide. We are coming forward with measures to act on single-use plastics and on microplastics. With our strategy we commit to harnessing global challenges with stronger engagement in international forums, more support to projects in East and South-East Asia, and more policy dialogue with countries outside Europe.

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What is the next step, now that the strategy has been published? What kind of timeframe can we expect?

In the Strategy we focus on making decisive progress within the current mandate, while preparing the ground for longer-term action. One of the first deliverables will be action on single-use plastics to stop items such as bottles, cups and food packaging from littering and ending up in the sea. We have started preparatory work on a legislative initiative, which we will present later this year. Stakeholders have until 12 February to let us have their input.

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