5 Nov 2019
EU Institutions and Private Companies Make Efforts to Reduce Plastics
EU institutions such as the European Commission (“Commission”), and private companies have pledged efforts and made commitments to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the EU. On the one hand, the Commission proposed to cut pollution by linking EU Member States' budget contributions to the amount of plastic waste they generate. On the other hand, the Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever recently announced a strategy to reduce the use of virgin plastics by 2025.
In the EU’s 2021 to 2027 budget proposal, the Commission has included a clause providing for a national contribution based on the amount of plastic packaging waste a Member State produces. Pursuant to information contained in the press release issued together with the 2021 to 2027 budget proposal, the Commission plans to simplify the EU Value Added Tax (VAT) and to include this new national contribution in the pursuit of EU policy priorities, including the reduction of plastic waste.
Due to criticism by plastic processors operating on the EU market, the Commission promptly acted to reassure manufacturers that its proposal is not a tax. However, the recycling industry body European Plastics Converters manifested that the fact that EU governments would be free to decide how and where to collect the amount due would lead to a “significant fragmentation” of the European market, paving the way for some Member States to potentially tax production or consumption of plastics. According to the managing director of the body, the Commission “is making a huge mistake” claiming that in five years from now, the industry will be “able to assess the damages of such measures”.
Whether in the form of a tax-like measure or any other instrument, Hong Kong traders can expect a more stringent EU policy against plastic waste.
The strategy to reduce plastic waste in the EU is expected to be implemented, not only by EU institutions, but also by private companies committed to the protection of the environment. Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods and plastic-producing companies, has announced a pledge to reduce plastic waste by 2025.
Information contained on Unilever’s website explains that by 2025 the company will “halve its use of virgin plastic, by reducing its absolute use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes and accelerating its use of recycled plastic” and “help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells”. Moreover, the company has set out that it plans to cut its annual plastics footprint of 700,000 tonnes by 50%, with more than 100,000 tonnes of the reduction coming from non-plastic solutions. According to Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope, only fast and radical action can eliminate plastic waste. Jope commented that the company’s standing point “has to be reducing the amount of plastic we [Unilever] use, and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources”. He further stated that “we are also committed to ensuring all our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable”. Unilever has claimed it would also help collect and process more plastic than it uses by 2025, with a target of 600,000 tonnes a year.
Media outlets have reported that environmentalist groups are welcoming the announcement by Unilever but warning that their action plan may not suffice. For example, one campaigner has urged Unilever to instead meet its target through an “absolute cut-back in single-use packaging”. The NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (“EIA”) has argued, for example, that increasing recycled content could not alone meet the scale of the problem given the gap between recycling facilities and demand for single-use plastics. According to the EIA, bio-based and biodegradable plastics do not necessarily break down in the environment any faster than conventional plastics. That said, Ellen MacArthur, founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which campaigns for a circular economy, has hailed Unilever’s pronouncement as a “significant step in creating a circular economy for plastic”.
Overall, Hong Kong traders can expect joint efforts by EU institutions and private companies in the EU to reduce plastic waste. Policy instruments are meant to be implemented by authorities and undertakings with the purpose of reducing the amount of plastic used in the production of their goods, seeking to achieve the objective of eliminating plastic waste in the European Union.