Member states cannot use the COVID-crisis as an excuse to weaken the EU’s environmentral and health protection efforts, European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius told EURACTIV Italy in an exclusive interview.
The EU executive’s youngest-ever Commissioner recognised that the impact of the pandemic on the EU’s economy and society is far-reaching and sometimes dramatic in many member states.
“The Commission has done everything it could to provide flexibility where it is really necessary,” he said, adding that President Ursula von der Leyen’s team will have to take the direct impact of the crisis into account when planning its future work.
The institution has already adjusted its work programme for 2020, refocusing and prioritising its actions needed to propel Europe’s recovery and resilience.
However, Sinkevičius stressed that environmental challenges have not gone away with the crisis. “Climate change is aggravating, bringing even more pressure to our fragile nature and biodiversity,” he said.
According to him, building sustainability and resilience in the fabric of citizens’ habits is more important than ever, like in the case of plastic pollution, which remains a major concern.
EU measures aimed at addressing unsustainable usage and littering have been supported very widely, Lithuania’s Commissioner added. “And I don’t think that will change.”
Waste management also remains a priority for Brussels even in times of COVID-19, although experiences from previous periods of economic difficulty indicate that waste generation may actually decrease in general.
“Where we see an increase in waste linked to the current health crisis – in particular of waste from healthcare facilities – we work closely with the member states to deal with the challenges they are facing,” he said, adding that the Commission is also monitoring the overall situation with waste generation.
‘Takeaway’ boom is temporary
Consumer habits have been changed during the pandemic. If people used to go out for dinner to restaurants, they have ordered some takeout, at least for a while.
Asked if those aspects of the ‘takeaway’ economy could increase the reliance on single-use plastic, Sinkevičius acknowledged some changes in people’s behaviour that the Commission is following closely to identify trends that will influence policies in the longer term.
However, even if the demand for certain takeaway food may have grown, he thinks it is most probably a temporary phenomenon limited to the duration of the confinement.
Last year, the EU signed off on measures that include bans on single-use plastic plates, cutlery, expanded polystyrene food containers, beverage cups, balloon sticks, straws and cotton bud sticks.
The deadline for transposing the Single-Use Plastics Directive in domestic legislation is July 2021, but the measures needed can be phased in quite gradually.
“For instance, the consumption reduction regarding single-use food containers and cups will be assessed by 2026, compared to 2022 levels,” the Commissioner said.
He added that the new EU rules do not ban single-use food containers or cups, but it requires a substantial reduction in their consumption.
“And, after all, why should packaging for takeaway food be single-use? The arguments for re-usable packaging haven’t changed,” he said.
A place for packaging
The recent EU circular economy strategy, unveiled just before the pandemic outbreak, aims to make all packaging placed on the EU market reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2040.
The strategy includes also new targets to reduce packaging waste and mandatory essential requirements for all packaging placed on the market.
“We will always need packaging, and there will probably always be a place for plastic packaging,” he said.
“Packaging protects products, increases the shelf life of food, and you can use it to convey important information to consumers.”
However, Sinkevičius distinguished between recognising that important role and unnecessary packaging that is simply a waste of resources.
“And if we do not stop plastic littering, the pressure to take ever stricter measures on plastics is not likely to decrease, as this is a matter of serious public concern,” he said.
The EU Environment boss called on private companies in the packaging sector to bring about the innovations that society needs, as policymakers can create favourable framework conditions and provide support only.
“Those investments will pay off, and they will open up new markets. That’s an opportunity for the industry – a chance to get ahead,” he said.
Sinkevičius also spoke about microplastics, “a serious problem” that “we are learning more about it every day.”
Widespread in almost every part of the environment, the EU official acknowledged that “understandably, citizens are worried.”
As announced in the new Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU is developing measures to restrict the use of intentionally added microplastics in products and to address unintentional releases from products like textiles, tyres and pellets.
“We are taking into account the opinion of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is currently working on a REACH restriction dossier,” Sinkevičius commented.
The restriction would apply to the whole EU and could cover intentionally added microplastics in multiple applications, aiming at reducing microplastics emissions of approximately 500 thousand tonnes over the next 20 years.
Concerning unintentional releases of microplastics, the EU will soon launch a study to analyse possible solutions to address releases of microplastics from three source categories, namely pre-production plastic pellets, synthetic textiles and automotive tyres.
The study will be used as a basis for the impact assessment of future legal action in this area.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]