How Europe is working to solve the plastic waste problem – and Hong Kong can, too
Carmen Cano outlines a new EU strategy involving making recycling profitable, limiting use of non-recyclable plastics, stopping littering at sea and promoting R&D, to keep plastics out of our waters and bodies
Every year, Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30 per cent is collected for recycling. Microplastics are now found in our lungs, air and dinner tables, and damage our health without us even noticing. We need to address this and that is the objective of the new European Union Plastics Strategy.
The strategy on plastics is part of the EU’s transition towards a more circular economy. It will transform the way products are designed, produced, used and recycled in the EU. Now plastics are produced, used and discarded without the economic benefits of a circular approach. This mistake harms the environment. Our goal is to protect the environment while laying the foundations of a new plastic economy that promotes economic growth. This can be achieved by fully integrating the need to reuse, repair and recycle throughout the entire life cycle of products. At the same time, we will continue to develop more environmentally friendly materials. Europe is best placed to lead this transition.
By taking the lead, we will turn a threat into an economic and health benefit, while creating new investment opportunities and jobs. Under the plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and intentional use of microplastics restricted. To ensure the strategy is effective and yields the best results, the EU will measure progress and adapt its policies where needed.
What does the strategy mean in practice? First, make recycling profitable for business through new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increasing the demand for recycled plastic, along with new recycling facilities and a standardised system for the collection and sorting of waste across the EU. This will create a more competitive, resilient plastics industry.
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Second, curb plastic waste. Standards in Europe have reduced plastics use significantly. The new proposal focuses on single-use plastics and fishing gear, measures limiting microplastics use, and labels identifying biodegradable, compostable plastics.
Third, stop littering at sea. New measures will ensure that waste generated on ships is not left at sea but returned to land and disposed of adequately. It will also reduce the administrative burden on ports, ships and competent authorities.
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Fourth, drive investment and innovation with guidance for national authorities and European businesses to minimise plastic waste, with 100 million euros (HK$956 million) more in support for R&D for smarter and more recyclable plastics.
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The EU strategy is not only relevant for Europeans. Last September, the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau held a beach cleaning with more than 100 volunteers at Rocky Bay beach. In less than two hours, more than 900kg of waste was removed, the large majority of it plastic. The world faces an emergency. If we do not change how we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. We must keep plastics out of our water, food and bodies. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more. This is a challenge citizens, industry and governments around the world must tackle together. We hope the guidelines, available online, will be useful to others as well.
The EU will do its part but cannot, and should not, do it alone. Everyone must join in to make the waters clean, the air breathable and the environment safe again. Hong Kong can be a part of the solution and reap the benefits. The EU and its member states are ready to work together with Hong Kong on its plastic and environmental policies.
Ambassador Carmen Cano is head of the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau