Plastic in packaging and agriculture, a trouble for environment and health. EU Court of Auditors Report

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The European Court of Auditors – in its dossierEU action to tackle the plastic waste problem‘ – fears that the recycling targets set for plastic packaging and waste will not be met.

‘Significant and concerted action is needed for the EU to nearly double the amount of its plastic packaging waste recycled by 2030.’ (1)

It is worth noting, however, that the Lansink scale, the paradigm underlying the circular economy, shows Reduction at the top, Reuse at the second rung. Recycling is therefore a subordinate hypothesis to the first two, although preferable to energy recovery by combustion or landfilling.

Plastic packaging, the manifest trouble

Plastic packaging dominates the packaging market and is the leading source of ‘post-consumer plastic waste collected through relevant streams‘ (61 percent). Their Europe-wide recycling rate, 41 percent, is drastically lower than that of every other packaging material: paper and cardboard (83 percent), metal (76 percent), and glass (73 percent). (2) And this is how European citizens produce an average of 32 kg/year per capita of plastic waste. Which end up in landfills and waste-to-energy plants, as well as being dispersed into the environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened this situation as well, stimulating the use of single-use plastic items everywhere. Personal protective equipment but also disposable plastic tableware and packaging, much to the chagrin of the Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPs, dir. 2019/904). (3)

Plastic in agriculture, the underestimated trouble

Agro-plastics, that is, the use of plastic in agriculture, is another underestimated trouble. It is estimated that at least 1.7 million tons of plastics were used in the EU agricultural sector in 2017. In descending order, the main applications:

– Silage films, greenhouses and tunnels,
– Plastic material film for mulching,
– Irrigation pipes,
– nets and ropes.


Plastics Europe
reports that in 2014, 42 percent of agricultural plastic waste would have been landfilled, 30 percent burned to produce energy, and 28 percent recycled. But the news appears to have little credibility, and the Court of Auditors itself acknowledges the likelihood ‘that some of the plastic is abandoned in the fields or is burned illegally.’

‘Plastics are essentially derived from crude oil and large amounts of CO2 are released during incineration, along with various amounts of other substances and pollutants such as nitrous oxide and mercury.’ (EU Court of Auditors, Analysis 4/20, para. 9). (1)

EU strategy for plastics in the circular economy

The EU Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy, adopted by the European Commission on 16.1.18, calls for doubling the target value of recycling plastic packaging waste. (4) Member states, already required to achieve 22.5 percent recycling by 2008, will need to reach 50 percent by 2025, 55 percent by 2030.

waste

The directives on waste landfills (EU dir. 2018/850), waste (EU dir. 2018/851), and packaging and packaging waste (EU dir. 2018/852) then define other measures, aimed at achieving more ambitious goals. Separate collection, extended producer responsibility (a corollary of the ‘polluter pays‘ principle), economic instruments and waste management plans. (5)

European Court of Auditors, the analysis

The European Court of Auditors, it should be noted, in this case carried out an analysis and not also an audit. Indeed, it is too early to assess the effects of a strategy based on directives (which postulate acts of transposition in the member states). Therefore, the analysis considers its crucial elements:

– packaging design to minimize materials and promote their recycling,
– Extended producer responsibility, according to Israeli school, (6)
– reliability of recycling data, shipments of plastic packaging waste to third countries, which express one-third of the recycling rate of plastic packaging in the EU,
– Waste trafficking, ‘insidious criminal activity‘.

Plastics and microplastics, threats to the environment and health

Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year, the ECA recalls. (7) In Europe, 85 percent of the waste found on beaches is plastic, and of this, 43 percent is single-use items and packaging.

Microplastics and nanoplastics are everywhere. In the air and in waters, including those in Italy’s large watersheds. So too in foods, even in fruits and vegetables. And finally, in the human placenta. (8) Analysis does not lie, unfortunately.

NIMBY, game over

‘Shipments for recycling outside the EU account for between 27 percent and 30 percent of the reported recycling of plastic packaging waste in 2012-2017.’ (1) After China shut down imports of plastic waste in 2018, their flows were diverted to other Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia) and Turkey.

However, NIMBY(Not In My BackYard) is being curbed, just as of 2021, thanks to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. (9) In fact, the green list of substances allowed for shipment is now limited to only ‘recyclable, uncontaminated and pre-sorted plastics, free of non-recyclable material and prepared for immediate and environmentally sound recycling.’

Possible solutions for packaging

The best packaging is what’s not there (Stanislao Fabbrino, president and CEO of Fruttagel, at Green Retail Forum 2019)

Reduction starts with redesigning packaging and where possible the mode of consumption itself, favoring refill and reuse systems. As well as more environmentally friendly and safer materials, such as glass, where possible. Reuse of plastic packaging, after all, is a solution successfully applied in several member states in a variety of ways. (11)

Deposit, as also noted, is the most effective solution to ensure the take-back and sometimes even the reuse of packaging. Member states that have adopted this system collect more than 80 percent of PET bottles on average, compared to the overall EU average (58 percent). With the possibility of production of better quality, more profitably recycled plastics.

Horizon 2020, research horizons


Horizon 2020
– the research funding program in the European Union-has disbursed some 84.6 million euros in net EU contributions for plastics research projects. EU spending on plastics projects accounts for as much as 17 percent of total funds disbursed by March 2020.

Agro-plastics is one of the most serious problems to be addressed, given the immediate dispersion of its residues into soils and waters. Research and development of alternative materials such as 100% biodegradable bioplastics, possibly derived from vegetable mowing and by-products of agricultural processing. (11) Keeping in mind the needs for sustainability, including economic sustainability, from the perspective of users.

In any case, it is necessary to reverse the growing trend of plastic production, also in light of its significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the climate emergency. (12)
Dario Dongo

Cover image from http://echosalters.over-blog.com/

Notes

(1) European Court of Auditors. EU action to tackle the plastic waste problem. 4/20 Analysis. 9.9.20, https://www.eca.europa.eu/Lists/ECADocuments/RW20_04/RW_Plastic_waste_IT.pdf

(2) For updates on recycling rates in Italy see. Marta Strinati. Waste recycling, where do we stand. The 2020 Report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 10.12.20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/mercati/riciclo-dei-rifiuti-a-che-punto-siamo-il-rapporto-2020

(3) Dario Dongo. Single-use plastics, the EU directive at the finish line. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 12/21/18, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/imballaggi/plastiche-monouso-la-direttiva-ue-al-traguardo

(4) Communication from the European Commission to Parliament, Council, Economic and Social Committee, Committee of the Regions. European strategy for plastics in the circular economy {SWD(2018) 16 final}. 16.1.18, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/IT/TXT/?uri=COM:2018:28:FIN

(5) Directive 2004/35/EC, on environmental liability with regard to the prevention and remedying of environmental damage. Consolidated text as of 6/26/19 at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/IT/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32004L0035&qid=1611698049256

(6) Dario Dongo, Ylenia Desireè Patti Giammello. Plastics and microplastics in the Mediterranean, a cultural challenge. GIFT(Great Italian Food Trade). 8/30/19, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/progresso/plastiche-e-microplastiche-nel-mediterraneo-una-sfida-culturale

(7) Dario Dongo, Sabrina Bergamini. Mediterranean, a sea of plastic. The ISPRA report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 10/16/19, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/mediterraneo-un-mare-di-plastica-il-rapporto-ispra

(8) Marta Strinati. Microplastics in the human placenta. Italian researchers’ discovery. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 11.12.20,
https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/salute/microplastiche-nella-placenta-umana-la-scoperta-di-ricercatori-italiani

(9) Reg. EC 1013/06 on waste shipments. Text updated 11.1.21 at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/IT/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A02006R1013-20210111

(10) Dario Dongo, Luca Foltran. PlasticTax and reuse, Italian diatribes and examples in Europe. GIFT(Great Italian Food Trade). 4.11.19, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/imballaggi/plastictax-e-riutilizzo-diatribe-italiane-ed-esempi-in-europa

(11) A beautiful initiative unfortunately lacking follow-up was developed in Castel San Pietro (BO). V. Dario Dongo, Luca Foltran. Italy’s first bioplastic plant from CO2 and plant waste. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 13.1.19, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/progresso/in-italia-il-primo-impianto-di-bioplastica-da-co2-e-scarti-vegetali

(12) Dario Dongo, Alessandra Mei. Plastics and greenhouse gas emissions, an emergency to be prevented. Scientific study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 9.2.20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/imballaggi/plastica-ed-emissioni-di-gas-serra-un-emergenza-da-prevenire-studio-scientifico