New role for Jeremy Irons: Talking trash in Brussels

Jeremy Irons.jpg

People must overhaul their habits of “unadulterated consumerism” if the EU is to curb its huge waste problem, British actor Jeremy Irons told a conference in Brussels.

The European Commission hosted the conference with Irons and Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik to announce the publication on Thursday (7 March) of the EU’s green paper on plastic waste while promoting the actor’s new documentary, ‘Trashed’.

The green paper aims to launch discussions about how to make plastic products more sustainable throughout their life cycle and reduce the impact of plastic discards on the environment.

“We have to take more time. We have time for things we think are important. If people were made aware of the follow on [of waste disposal]… Unadulterated consumerism will not work”, Irons told reporters.

“Now it is really time to think. The old model, especially in this part of the world, hasn’t worked well.”

The Oscar-winning actor admitted he was a “flag-waver, not a policymaker”, but was attempting to raise awareness about the effects of plastic waste, including the leaking of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. He also said he wants to change of waste habits and promote recycling.

The EU has a variety of waste rules – including the 19-year-old Packing and Packaging Waste Directive and the 2008 Waste Framework Directive. But there is no specific target for plastics recycling, and their growing environmental impact has prompted calls for specific regulation.

While the amount of recycling has increased, the EU still landfills or incinerates 60% of its municipal waste, according to Eurostat. Just 25% of non-decomposable plastic is recycled, and it represents 80% of marine litter.

Throw-away society

Poto?nik stressed the need for societal change to curb the impacts of waste and drawing attention to regions in Italy and Spain’s Basque Country – Capannori and Gipuzkoa – which had managed to reduce their waste output to near zero.

“Plastic is often perceived as a cheap and disposable material in our ‘throw-away’ society, and recycling rates are low,” he said. “Half of all plastic waste generated in Europe goes to landfill which should be avoided as plastic can contain hazardous components and disposal can result in undesirable emissions and concentrated, polluting residues.”

But to Poto?nik waste disposal presents a “huge opportunity” for resource efficiency. He conceded that the world relies on plastics for many industries, saying that he was “for the dematerialisation of industry in a way that keeps industry in Europe”.

The commissioner echoed Irons’ calls for the rest of the world to pursue more sustainable disposal policies. “With the world’s population growing there is no chance of repeating some of the development paths of the West,” he said.

Irons criticised the waste disposal business for its “vested interests”, which were preventing society from tackling full on the problem of plastic waste in the same way that it tackled drink driving. “I hope some people will be embarrassed out of their comfortable way of living,” he said.

Public consultation under the green paper will last until the beginning of June 2013, resulting in further policy action on plastic waste in 2014. The EU executive is pursuing a separate regulatory proposal on the issue of one-use plastic bags.

Green environment spokesperson and Finnish MEP Satu Hassi said: "Today's green paper on plastic waste is unfortunately overshadowed by the delay in anticipated EU legislation on one-use plastic bags. Despite extensive consultation and a comprehensive impact assessment, this legislative proposal, which was scheduled for the first semester of 2013, is being delayed. A delay at this moment is not trivial, as it seriously undermines the chances of adopting the in this legislative term, and hence before 2015.

"The major environmental crisis being caused by plastic waste, notably in our seas and oceans, is now finally being acknowledged. With 10 million tonnes of waste, mostly plastic, ending up in marine environments each year, urgent action is needed. The Commission's green paper recognises this but this recognition counts for little without concrete measures. It is not enough to just preach resource efficiency without delivering concrete action. To this end, the delay of legislative proposals aimed at reducing one-use plastic bags - a major source of plastic waste - is a clear regret."

Danish Green MEP Margrete Auken said: "Don't promote incinerators. [The EU] needs a green tax system to encourage a change of behaviour."

“The review of the Landfill Directive in 2014 offers an opportunity to make a step-change in the EU's resource efficiency policy. The inclusion of a landfill ban on plastics waste in the Directive will stimulate the plastic recycling sector and will make more plastic waste available for efficient energy recovery to produce electricity and heat. This ultimately leads to the creation of jobs and helps Europe to be less dependent on energy imports”, said Dr Wilfried Haensel, Executive Director of PlasticsEurope.

The European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental services (FEAD) said in a statement:

"It is of utmost importance to divert plastic waste from landfills in favour of waste treatments higher up the waste hierarchy. Especially in the worst performing member states, this will only be feasible if the appropriate measures for setting up a modern waste management infrastructure are put in place and accompanying economic instruments, such as an extended producer responsibility and taxation measures, are introduced. In this context, future EU-funds should only be granted for waste management projects in compliance with the waste hierarchy."

The EU's 2005 Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste sets a long-term goal for the EU to become a recycling society that seeks to avoid waste and uses waste as a resource. 

The bloc's revised Waste Framework Directive, which should have been transposed into national law by 12

December 2010, introduces a binding 'waste hierarchy' defining the order of priority for treating waste. The waste hierarchy favours prevention of waste, followed by reuse, recycling, and recovery, with waste disposal only a last resort.

To comply with the directive, EU member states are obliged to draw up specific waste management plans after analysing their current waste management situations.

Countries are also required to establish special waste prevention programmes by the end of 2013, in a drive to break the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts associated with the generation of waste.

  • June 2013: End of public consultation under the green paper
  • 2014: Further policy action on plastic waste in 2014

EU official documents

Subscribe to our newsletters