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Plastic Strategy: The European Commission’s Vision for Plastic

Amsterdam, January 17, 2018 — In the spirit of turning challenges into chances, the European Commission presented its Plastic Strategy yesterday. The European Union (EU) wants nothing less than to create a “new plastic economy”. The dilemma was put into words by Commissioner Frans Timmermans in his presentation to the European Parliament: “We can no longer live without plastic, but that very same plastic can be deadly”.

In order to find a solution to this dilemma, the EU wants to drastically reform the plastic industry. On the production side, new demands to make plastic more recyclable are arising. In 2030, all plastic must be either highly reusable or easily recyclable. The focus on recycling lies especially with C02 profit, which is in line with the climate accord that was agreed upon in Paris in 2015.

What does the EU hope to do about the increasing plastic pollution in the environment? A tax on single-use plastic is being considered, and container-deposit systems are also being heavily simulated. The possibility of an overall ban on microplastics in cosmetics is furthermore being researched. The plans, however, strongly rely on voluntary participation from the industry. 

The Plastic Strategy undeniably offers a framework through which to drastically take on plastic pollution. Whether or not this will happen in practice remains yet to be seen. Firstly, there is the relatively unambitious deadline of 2030. Between now and then, plastic production will increase enormously. The plans to place a tax on single-use plastic used for packaging are vague, while concrete reduction goals have yet to be formulated.

The EU has presented the plastic Strategy at an opportune moment. As of January 1st, China no longer accepts plastic waste from the EU. Europe must now process its own plastic waste. This creates a large opening for innovations in the recycling industry and gives the momentum needed to introduce necessary measures.

The Commission wants to turn challenges into opportunities. The danger is that the EU sees the combination of economic growth and sustainability through rose-colored glasses. When the focus lies on “better plastic” instead of the drastic reduction of the overall plastic use, the chance of leaks into the environments remains large. 

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McDonald’s must stop with straws


Amsterdam, January 15, 2018
— Every day, McDonald’s gives its customers millions of plastic straws. These are used once for a short amount of time. This is not without consequences; straws are the most-found item on beaches and contribute to plastic pollution and animal suffering

The fast-food chain has more than 36,000 establishments in more than one hundred countries. Instead of replacing the straw, McDonald’s has developed advanced plastic straws in the form of a J with openings on the sides.

Smofus.org has started a petition to urge McDonald’s to stop using plastic straws. McDonald’s is large and powerful. A prompt to stop would be quickly adopted throughout the entire sector. Shunning the plastic straw is a quick win in the fight against plastic soup. 

Click here and sign this petition. Help to put pressure on the multinational corporation!

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Breaking news: EU announces tax on plastic

Amsterdam, January 12, 2018 —First there was a tweet. Gunther Oettinger, the EU commissioner for budget and human resources, wondered whether the European Union should impose a tax on the production of plastic for environmental reasons. Soon after, he gave a written explanation to journalists in — among others — this message. 

The European Commission wants to impose a tax on plastic in the entirety of the European Union in order fight pollution and to make use of the income it would provide. Due to Brexit, however, it has become more difficult to finalize such a measure. Another important reason for the implementation of this proposal is because, as of recently, China no longer imports waste plastic from Europe.

This is important news. 

There are two ways to do something in order to cut the use of plastic in practice, thereby lowering the accompanying environmental damage. The first is to prohibit certain applications of the material, such as the use of microplastics in personal care products. The second is to make plastic more expensive, for example by imposing a levy on production. At the moment, plastic is dirt cheap, which means that the cost of the pollution it causes is not included in the price. Because plastic is so cheap, it is massively used and preferred over other materials on the market. Practically every separate fruit is packaged in it. Single-use plastic dominates, and the subsequent damage — the plastic soup — appears on the front pages of the news more and more often. 

Up until now, producers and politicians maintained an entirely different approach; placing the burden on the consumer. People must be taught that plastic can no longer end up as litter. Already-used plastic must be recycled. Both these strategies leave the annual growth of plastic production undisturbed, and both offer no results. It seems to be an illusion that the plastic cycle can be closed completely (so that plastic doesn’t reach the environment); an entire population can hardly be raised to ensure that everyone neatly separates their waste and always tidies up after themselves.

Commissioner Oettinger does not yet know if the tax will fall on producers or consumers. Either way, the announcement is a milestone. We cannot lose time. By making plastic more expensive, both consumers as well as producers will deal with the material in a different way.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “We encourage a Europe-wide tax on plastic. This is a step in the right direction. Disposable plastic will be taxed, hopefully suggesting that its heyday is over”.

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Plastic Waste Mountain a Big Problem

Amsterdam, January 9, 2018 — Now that China has closed its doors to the import of plastic waste, plastic is piling up. As was predicted months ago, collectors are now stuck with their plastic because they can no longer export it. While eligible for recycling, much of this plastic waste is now being burned. The incinerators cannot deal with such high demand and the goals of the Netherlands to recycle 54% of consumer and industrial packaging will not be achieved. 

Up until January 1st, China imported much of the West’s plastic waste. The state has begun to regard plastic designated for recycling as undesirable pollution. This measure is part of the Chinese National Sword 2017 Campaign.

It has become apparent that the Netherlands has never taken serious responsibility for its own waste, let alone the recycling thereof. Heavy investments will be needed in order to enable the Netherlands to recycle its largely low-quality plastic waste and to make sure that it is not inferior in quality to new plastic made from petroleum.

There is another way to get rid of plastic waste, and it is striking that this option is not mentioned in the media, for example by the NOS. This other option is simply a drastic reduction in the use of disposable plastic, especially for packaging purposes. Consumption-reduction is now single-handedly the most effective measure in the fight against litter and plastic soup. Where are the reduction policies?

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Camels continue to die of plastic in the desert

Amsterdam, 9 January 2018 – Every week, Dr Ulrich Wernery performs a necropsy on camels. The Director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai has been doing this for years. He finds plastic in almost every camel’s stomach. Not just a little plastic, but an unimaginable amount of plastic. Given that the camels cannot digest the plastic that they eat, the plastic accumulates in their stomachs, forming larger and larger clumps. It is estimated that one of every two camels in the United Arab Emirates dies of plastic consumption. The picture shows the largest clump of plastic that Dr Wernery has found to date – a couple of hundred plastic bags, nylon twine and rope, weighing 52 kilos. 

 

When Dr Wernery sees a thin camel, he knows for sure that it has plastic in its stomach. The plastic in the stomach gives the camel a full feeling, and it starts eating less and less. On top of this, the plastic blocks the digestive tract. Of course, it is not only camels that die from ingesting plastic, it is also cows, goats, gazelles and sheep. Read an interview with Dr Wernery here. 

The American photographer and filmmaker, Chris Jordan, known for his shocking photos of dying albatross chicks on Midway island, filmed a lump of plastic like this two years ago.   

Dr Wernery has been warning about this phenomenon for more than ten years. Unfortunately, it has not led to any changes. Camels continue to die because so many people leave plastic behind in the desert and nobody cleans it up.   

Photo’s gratitude dr. Wernery.

Peak Plastic

Amsterdam, 8 January 2017 – Humans produce more and more trash and that trend is set to continue for decades. According to an article published in Nature in 2013, this is explained by two dominant factors: population growth and rising wealth. Mega cities in countries south of the Sahara in particular produce ever more trash. This is due to continue for a whole century, since the peak is not expected to be reached until after 2100.

Meanwhile the global chemical industry is investing billions of dollars in new production facilities to manufacture plastic, according to a recent report. The proportion of plastic in trash will therefore rise, partly because it is increasingly replacing traditional materials, such as metals and paper. The collection and processing of trash in developing countries is poorly organised. Most trash is dumped in expanding landfill sites. Leakage into the environment is huge. The plastic breaks up into tiny pieces, but it never breaks down. If this continues, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. And that is… long before we reach Peak Plastic, the point in time when the quantity of plastic trash in the world reaches its highest point.

Apparently not a single scientist has made an estimate of Peak Plastic. Whether the peak will be reached before or after the year 2100, does not really matter. Peak Plastic basically demonstrates that all the well-meaning initiatives to combat plastic soup will hardly make any difference on a worldwide scale, as long as its use is not drastically reduced.

Click here to see the graph on the world’s production of plastic. The world’s plastic production is set to quadrupal by 2050. The question is how much will peak production be, before it starts falling?

 

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Framing by the international plastics industry


Amsterdam, 3 January 2018 How has the international plastics industry reacted to the resolution embraced by the world’s countries at the United Nations Environment Assembly earlier in December in Kenya? At the assembly, all the world’s environment ministers jointly took a major step towards combatting plastic pollution. Thanks to the resolution, an international treaty specifically geared to preventing plastic pollution is within sight for the first time. The expected treaty aims to dramatically reduce the use of plastic as well as collect and clear up plastic waste. A working group was appointed to look into all the options, including binding reduction targets to be imposed on member states. In response, plastics producers will have to adapt their production.  

How will the plastics industry deal with this decision? After all in the coming years the sector will invest tens of billions of dollars in bringing even more plastic onto the market. Read more about this huge investment in a recent report by the Center for International Environmental Law. It’s quite simple to work out: the more plastics produced, the greater the chance a proportion of them will end up on the streets and in the sea.   

Of course, the plastics producers only have one goal: to earn money by producing plastics. Therefore, as far as they are concerned, the reduction of plastics needs to be prevented at all costs. But it would not be sensible to say that out loud, when the horrors of plastic soup are becoming apparent to everyone. So how should they go about it?  

The strategy which plastics producers are using is best described as framing. This strategy entails stressing certain aspects while omitting others, without the reader realizing that manipulation is taking place.   

The World Plastics Council which represents all plastics producers worldwide responded instantly to the resolution with a press release, which welcomed the resolution because of the worldwide consensus that ‘better waste management’ is needed to put an end to plastic pollution.  

The press release refers to a report published in 2015 entitled Stemming the Tide; Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean. In relative terms, the biggest contribution to plastic soup originates from five Asian countries (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand). The report which is largely funded by companies with vested interests such as Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and The American Chemistry Council, advocates better refuse collection in these countries. The word ‘reduction’ is not even mentioned.  

The framing of the problem does not stop there, since the press release ends by pointing out how good plastics are. After all they are valued across the planet for their benefits and environmental performance compared to other materials.  

Their implicit message is clear: the world can carry on buying and using plastics with impunity, since these products are good for the environment. According to the industry, all that needs to be done is improve waste management. 

 

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Ban on microbeads in UK, Italy and New Zealand

Amsterdam, 23 December 2017 – The United Kingdom, Italy and New Zealand plan to ban plastic scrub particles in personal care products. Although these countries are taking a major step, this legislation does not mean no more plastic will enter the sea through the use of personal care products.

In London the government adopted a proposal by a special parliamentary commission to ban the production of these personal care products as of 1 January 2018 and their sale as of July 2018. In the parlementary debate which preceded the decision, references were made to the Beat the Microbead campaign’s Position Paper which among other things calls for a broader ban on microplastics.

The Italian parliament adopted a proposal on 19 December to ban microbeads scrub particles in cosmetics as of 2020. In addition, Italy will be the first country to ban plastic cotton buds as of 2019.

In early December, the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, confirmed her country will ban microbeads as of May 2018, as announced by the previous government. New Zealand’s retailers are already removing these polluting products from their shelves and adapting formulas in their own brands.

In each of these pieces of legislation the ban only affects the plastic particles with a scrub function. However, these products contain other plastics which are not covered by the legislation, such as glitter. In Great Britain, glitter in scrubs is covered by the new legislation, while glitter in make-up or shampoo is not. Most glitter comprises of a combination of aluminum and PET. When used, they pollute water with microplastics just as much as the scrub particles do. According to The Independent, British scientists recently called for a ban on glitter.

Vlokreeft (Orchestia Gammarellus)
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Gammarids shred a single plastic bag into 1.75 million pieces

Amsterdam, 12 December 2017 – Plastic bags gradually disintegrate in the marine environment as the result of the effects of sunlight, oxygen and waves. However, it was unknown whether marine organisms accelerate the process by ingesting and secreting plastic. Now it turns out that gammarids (Orchestia gammarellus) appear to do so.

Laboratory research in Great Britain has shown that this amphipod shreds a plastic bag into endless numbers of microscopic pieces with an average diameter of 488,59 µm. Although this happens with all types of plastic, the fragmentation process is four times faster when the plastic has accumulated a biofilm. A gammarid produces over 8 fragments a day. Research on the shoreline confirms the presence of such fragments in and around this creature’s excrement. A study into gammarids, which inhabit the shores of northern and western Europe, was carried out by the University of Plymouth and published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, Professor Richard Thompson says, ‘An estimated 120 million tonnes of single-use plastic items – such as carrier bags – are produced each year. This research shows species might also be contributing to the spread of such debris.’  See the university’s press release.

Research had already shown that the northern fulmar grinds plastic in its stomach and secretes it as tiny microplastics. This means there are more species which accelerate the tempo in which plastic becomes fragmented into miniscule pieces.

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UNEA3: towards international law against plastic soup

Nairobi, 5 December 2017 – Without dramatic action, plastic production is expected to grow massively in the coming decades, bringing with it an endless wave of plastic waste and plastic pollution. However, there is no international law against plastics flooding into the sea from the land.

This month environment ministers from around the world meet in Nairobi, Kenya for the third United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). Plastic pollution is recognised as a serious and rapidly growing issue of global concern. UNEA is the place to decide about the next step the world has to take.

A draft resolution, prepared by Norway, calls for the establishment of an Open-Ended Ad Hoc Working Group to make recommendations to strengthen international governance structures for combating marine plastic litter and microplastics that could lead to the proposition of global convention.

Several member representatives of the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement, including the Plastic Soup Foundation, are attending UNEA3 in support of a joint call for an international legally binding agreement on plastics and plastic pollution. Any such convention should include a binding global reduction target, and requirements for loss prevention, collection, and recycling of all plastics. Global quality standards and market restrictions are needed. To ensure governments and industries comply with global targets for reduction a set of strong enforcement mechanisms should be implemented.

#BreakFreeFromPlastic calls for:

  • implementing forms of extended responsibility of plastic producers, like container deposit schemes, in terms of both waste management and full environmental and health costs of plastic;
  • focus on upstream solutions and prevention, not on clean-ups or consumer behavior change;
  • clear mandate for an Ad HocOpen-Ended Working Group to explore international governance structures to address plastic pollution and marine litter.