Why the Commission’s new plastic ban threatens to fall flat

How can the plastic problem be solved in a democracy? Not through banning plastic cutlery and straws, some scientists argue. [EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA]

The European Commission wants to ban disposable plastic dishware and cutlery. But critics say this is pointless and manufacturers are unimpressed by the idea. EURACTIV Germany’s media partner WirtschaftsWoche reports.

When it comes to plastic waste, even plastic manufacturers are becoming more contemplative. Thomas Piesik is the managing director of Wikon Thermoform, which makes the ‘Göffel’ – a spoon-and-fork in one [combination of the German words ‘Gabel’ and ‘Löffel’] – which come with salads and yoghurts sold in supermarkets nationwide.

Enter the European Commission: the EU executive wants to free the oceans and beaches of plastic through a new regulation, which is going to prohibit, among other things, straws, cotton buds and plastic cutlery. The details are not set yet but Piesik’s Göffels are likely to be affected.

But the manufacturer and the Commission actually agree in some respects. “Plastic does not belong in the world today.” This comment did not come from any environmental group but from Piesik himself.

In Indonesia, he drove past rivers where he could not see water because of the number of plastic bottles in it.

But the unanimity ends there. While Piesik sees plastic as a problem he means packaging rather than his folding cutlery.

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Even among environmental experts, the Commission’s planned initiative is not undisputed.

“If you want to have less plastic waste overall, the ban on straws or single-use tableware will only help a little,” said Henning Wilts, head of the Circular Economy Research Department at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

“In comparison to the 26 million tonnes of plastic waste, these are marginal quantities overall.”

Georg Mehlhart, a resource expert at the Öko-Institut in Freiburg, also questions the relevance of plastic cutlery in general. “When it comes to pollution of the oceans, there are much bigger problems,” he said, referring to microplastics and packaging.

Rwanda, East Africa, is one of the success stories putting Western nations in the shade. Its president, Paul Kagame, banned plastic bags and plastic packaging ten years ago.

Anyone looking for a piece of plastic waste on Kigali’s streets today will have to spend some time searching: streets across the country are spotless.

Even in villages far outside the capital, where peasants still plough the fields by hand and push sacks of potatoes to the market by bicycle, it is tidier than in many parts of European capitals like Berlin or Brussels.

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However, this only works because President Kagame has ruled the country with an iron fist since the 1994 genocide.

At the borders, customs officers frisk immigrants. Smugglers wrap plastic bags around their bodies as if they were attempting to smuggle drugs into the country.

Those who are caught face hefty penalties: smugglers can expect up to six months in prison. Time and again, plastic sinners are forced into public confessions in newspapers or on the radio. Shops have been closed because they have sold food in plastic wrap.

So the chances of Europe using Rwanda are a model have to be tempered. But how can the plastic problem be solved in a democracy? Not through banning plastic cutlery and straws, scientists agree.

“No single approach can solve the problem alone,” says Mehlhart. Similarly, Wilts explains, “I would like the Commission to regulate or ban fewer individual products.”

Instead, according to Wilts, there is a need for a comprehensive strategy that sees the plastic problem as a whole and offers solutions at all levels.

For example, recycled plastic should be subsidised, while oil subsidies, needed to produce new plastic, should  be cut. Instead of disposable packaging, reusable packaging should be promoted and backed up with deposit systems, especially when it comes to beverage bottles.

In addition, the industry should get concrete goals for how much packaging it has to save. How these are achieved, the companies could then decide for themselves. In the UK, that has already happened, says Wilts – and it’s very successful.

Cotton buds and plastic straws could be banned in England next year

Cotton buds, plastic drinking straws and other single-use plastics could be banned from sale in England next year in the next phase of the campaign to try to halt the pollution of the world’s rivers and oceans. EURACTIV’s partner The Guardian reports.

However, spoon manufacturer Piesik does not believe anything will change for him at all. The plastic issue has become increasingly popular in recent years among politicians and many have used it to raise their profile. But hardly anything has happened so far.

It is not only Piesik who expects the Commission’s current proposal to be diluted, until it finally finds its way into national laws – if at all. “It does not make me nervous at the moment.”

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