EU plastics strategy and UK plans: collusion or collision?

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The problem of plastic waste, which was brought to public attention by the TV series, Blue Planet, is one of the most important environmental issues that the UK and the EU are facing at present. The UK government has recently announced a 25 year environment plan to tackle the issues and the EU has announced a new European strategy for plastics. Whilst these initiatives should work together, there are some areas of apparent disharmony.

The UK has been forced to search for new ways of dealing with plastic waste since China banned imports of plastic waste, and this has led to strategies for using and producing less disposable items such as straws and coffee cups. Some experts have criticised the lack of definite legislation to tackle the issues. There has been an emphasis on encouraging companies to take responsibility for the plastics they produce, rather than enforcing new regulations to control waste. A Friends of the Earth spokesperson has said that the EU is more willing to put legislation in place, rather than asking for voluntary cooperation as the UK government has done.

Both the UK and the EU have set targets for the reduction of plastic waste, with the EU saying that all plastic packaging should be recyclable by 2030 and the UK aiming to have no avoidable plastic waste at all by 2042. Some companies, such as Wagamama and Iceland, are voluntarily implementing policies to reduce the use of plastics, but according to Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth, rules and regulations are needed in order for real change to occur. Plastic recycling could be promoted further to reduce environmental damage.

At present, around 25 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced in the EU each year and only 30% of this is recycled. The new strategy for a circular economy in Europe will promote reuse and plastic recycling and EU policymakers have pledged 100m Euros to fund the development of new, more recyclable plastics. The EU target, set in 2015, of recycling a minimum of 55% of all plastic packaging by 2025 is unchanged. The UK shares this target as a current member of the EU and according to the government, it will not be altered following Brexit.

Some progressive UK initiatives have attracted praise from policymakers at the EU. These include banning microbeads from cosmetic products, which is seen as an important measure in the fight against microplastics. There are up to 300,000 tonnes of microplastics released into the environment annually and the ban which came into force in January this year has shown that the UK is a leader in tackling plastic waste.

The plastic bag tax, in which a 5p charge is levied on each bag used, appears to have reduced their use by as much as 85 percent, although it is unclear whether the policy originated from the EU regulations or whether it was planned prior to this by the UK government, as a DEFRA spokesman has claimed.

The issue of plastic waste goes beyond borders, however, and specific strategies for dealing with the problem need to be developed by both the EU and the UK government.

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