What does plastic pollution have to do with Europe’s industrial zero-carbon strategy?

Carbon Market Watch is working to advance the carbon-free transformation of Europe’s industry. But what does this actually mean and how does it affect our daily lives? On the occasion of World Environment Day under the theme ‘Beating Plastic Pollution’, we provide a deep-dive into the role of plastics.

Plastics have become part of our everyday lives, in ways that we could not have imagined half a century ago when we produced 20 times fewer plastic products than we do today. On an average day, we could use a plastic cotton bud to clean our ears, a plastic wet wipe for our face, drink a juice using a plastic straw and cup, order take-away that we bring home in its plastic packaging and bag, and so on.

We cannot live without plastic, it seems, yet the way we consume, produce and discard plastic is hugely damaging to our environment and ourselves. The million tonnes of plastic litter that end up in the oceans every year is one of the most alarming signs of these problems.

Plastics are a petrochemical product, which means that it is produced from petroleum, a fossil fuel. In addition to the threat that plastic poses to marine species, it, therefore, also contributes to climate change. To produce one kilogram of plastics, between 2 and 3.5 kg of CO2 is emitted.

The future of plastics

The carbon-free transformation of Europe’s industries cannot be limited to the way we produce materials and products if it is to be a success. It is equally, or more, important how (much) we use and discard of these products in the first place.

In the case of plastics, for example, Europe’s demand amounts to around 49 million tonnes, of which over 25 million tonnes ends up as waste every year. Only less than 30% of such waste is collected for recycling. And of this recycled waste, around half is sent abroad (mostly to China, the biggest source of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans) where it is uncertain how the plastic waste is treated (if at all). We moreover use a staggering amount of 100 billion plastic bags per year in Europe. This is a tremendous waste because they are often only used once. Many end up in our oceans and seas.

To tackle the environmental problems of plastics, the way we use, re-use, and recycle them needs to drastically change.

In some cases, we should stop using plastics altogether as there are more sustainable and durable alternatives. This is the case for many single-use plastic products, such as straws, cotton-buds, plates, and cutlery, that can be made from more sustainable materials. These products will soon be banned under the new EU legislation which aims to tackle the top sources of marine litter in Europe and help avoid the emissions of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030.

Additionally, more recycling and using more recycled plastics can reduce dependency on fossil fuels for plastic production, and curb the related CO2 emissions. This can have impressive benefits: Recycling 1 million tonnes of plastic has the same CO2 benefit than taking 1 million cars off the road. The way we currently treat plastics is also a wasted economic opportunity; a transition to a ‘circular’ plastics economy can create 200,000 new jobs spread across Europe.

The circular way

At Carbon Market Watch, we have taken some small steps to reduce our plastic waste, by using our own cotton bags, glass containers for our favorite Taiwanese take-away, and re-usable water bottles when we are on the road. But such small steps alone will not spur the plastic transformation fast enough.

EU and national policymakers have an important role to play when it comes to ensuring the sustainable, zero-carbon transformation of the (plastic) industry. A range of measures, from bans on single-use plastics, to deposit schemes for plastic bottles, economic incentives reflecting the pollution costs of landfilling and incineration, and new product design, are needed. Some of these have already been proposed and implemented in Europe.

We can only conclude that an industrial transformation strategy is not such a distant topic as one might initially think. In a zero-carbon society, there will be changes not only to the way our products are produced but also to the way we consume and discard them. Changing our current wasteful practices to more circular ways of consuming and producing will be critical to beat plastic pollution and to limit climate change.