Franco-Dutch plastic ‘coalition of the willing’ takes shape

France and the Netherlands' sustainability state-secretaries Brune Poirson (L) and Stientje Van Veldhoven (R) meet in Brussels on 5 April. [Photo: French Perm Rep]

The French and Dutch governments have both penned national pacts that go beyond what EU rules on plastic waste stipulate. On Friday (5 April), they kicked off a process they hope will culminate in a European Plastics Summit in 2020.

In late February, France and the Netherlands both coincidentally launched on the same day separate national plans to improve how plastic packaging is used.

Both are built around voluntary pledges by private companies and fostering a so-called ‘coalition of the willing’. Signatories include Dutch dairy giant FrieslandCampina and multinationals Carrefour, Coca-Cola Europe and Danone.

Under the Dutch plan, the signing parties commit to making sure at least 70% of single-use plastic packaging is recycled, as well as a 20% plastic consumption reduction goal, all by 2025. The French pact aims to make all packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by the same year.

The pacts also include obligations to make sure recycled plastic is used in new products, awareness raising measures are organised and a list of “problematic or unnecessary items” is drawn up.

At an event hosted by the Dutch permanent representation to the EU in Brussels on Friday, sustainability state-secretaries Brune Poirson (France) and Stientje Van Veldhoven (the Netherlands) outlined how they see their respective pacts evolving.

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“From the very beginning it’s been about not being just a French-Dutch initiative. The idea has always been to create a coalition of the willing in European governments and in the private sector,” Van Veldhoven told EURACTIV.

Eleven representatives from 11 different counties joined the Dutch-hosted event and there are plans afoot to hold a “joint public-private European plastic statement” in the autumn, ahead of a full ‘Plastics Summit’ at the beginning of 2020.

The summit is meant to act as a full stocktake of the plastics issue and for the conclusions to be forwarded to the new European Commission, so the EU executive can draft its work programme accordingly.

France’s Brune Porison told EURACTIV that “we want to show that we can translate already-existing legislation into very concrete, tangible things that our citizens can see and to plant the seeds of a level playing-field at EU level.”

The EU recently agreed new rules to limit certain single-use plastics products, including cutlery, drinks stirrers and balloon sticks, and the new legislation is expected to get the final green light from the Council this week.

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In drafting their pacts, both countries involved NGOs to act as “trusted intermediaries” and make sure that the objectives were “realistic but also ambitious”.

When France and the Netherlands first published their plans, some environmental groups concluded that the voluntary nature of the pledges will be their downfall, in the same way that the EU’s Plastics Strategy was criticised in early 2018.

“Some would say that it is not enough to just have the willing involved but I would disagree, because it gives a tool to point the finger and even shame companies that aren’t joining the movement,” Poirson insisted.

“We’re not being naive by focusing on the companies that want to work with us, we do that in order to show other companies that they are not ambitious enough,” she added.

The pacts are heavily influenced by the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is a strong advocate of the circular economy. The Dutch plan “of course goes beyond what European rules stipulate,” Van Veldhoven said. “Sometimes we go further, sometimes we go faster”.

Under the EU’s revised waste framework directive, all member states must meet a 50% plastic recycling target by 2025. The French pact, for example, sets a 60% benchmark by 2022.

Both state-secretaries emphasised that short-term action is of the essence, citing the discovery of a dead whale with 22kg of plastic in its stomach off the coast of Italy last week  as a stark reason to do more.

“I get letters from schoolchildren about this. They don’t want seabirds choking to death or whales dying full of plastic. It’s one of those problems that we hope will join the ranks of the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain and so on,” Van Veldhoven said.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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