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Karolina Skog is no longer a government minister,
Minister for the Environment

Opinion piece from Ministry of the Environment

EU has to step up in fight against plastic waste


Opinion piece published in Politico on 5 March, by Minister for the Environment Karolina Skog

EU export of plastics is 'indefensible and irresponsible,' says Swedish Environment Minister Karolina Skog.

Every minute, about 15 tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean.
The seas, so fundamental to human life, are rapidly being filled with water bottles, abandoned fishing gear and plastic toys that we have cleared from our homes.

Sweden and many other countries have developed policies aimed at combating problems related to plastic. In our country, we have banned the use of microplastics in rinse-off cosmetics and initiated a government commission on plastics, among other things.

Yet much more needs to be done on national, regional and global levels.
In important respects, the different levels are interlinked. We know that much of the plastic waste that is exported from EU member countries ends up in third countries that lack the infrastructure to deal with it sustainably. This export is indefensible and irresponsible.

Owing partly to the lack of national and regional infrastructure for recycling, people in my own country are starting to question whether the waste they carefully sort into their bins is put to good use. For most materials, the answer is yes. But when it comes to plastic, much more must be done.

The use of toxic chemicals and an ever-growing number of different plastics make the material difficult to recycle. A recent report by Material Economics concludes that around €1 billion worth of plastic reaches its end of life every year in Sweden. Some of this is recycled, some is burned for energy. But only 13 percent of its value is captured. We need to focus on reuse and better recycling, and creating a higher capacity for recycling within the Union is part of the solution.

The European Commission's new Plastics Strategy is a step in the right direction, but many of the policies lack ambition.

More forceful action is needed to ensure that EU countries do not export plastic waste to countries that cannot guarantee waste management that is sustainable for human health and the environment. Since China has put into place strict limits on imports of foreign waste, the EU must now pay very close attention to the shift of waste streams.

Brussels should also take joint action to develop the Basel Convention to regulate the transport of plastic waste.

The Commission's upcoming legislative proposal to limit the amount of single-use plastic and reduce the amount of lost fishing gear is a positive development. When cleaning European beaches, single-use plastic makes up more than 50 percent of the marine litter. We must ensure that recycled plastic is of a high standard and that recycling occurs in a way that is sustainable for human health and the environment.

We must ensure that recycled plastic is of a high standard and that recycling occurs in a way that is sustainable for human health and the environment. It is surprising that Commission strategy does not mention the importance of non-toxic material cycles. For manufacturers of goods and products, it is important to know that requirements are consistent for recycled as well as for virgin materials. This is particularly important with plastics, which we know can contain many substances of high concern. We want to see stricter requirements in relevant product legislation.

Some years ago, plastic was just a material, albeit a very useful one. Today, we know more.

Plastic has an impact on the status of our oceans, the health of our children and efficiency of our economies. With this knowledge in hand, we must be ambitious and accept our responsibility not only for what we produce and use, but also for what we choose to export.

The European Strategy for Plastics lays out a way forward. Now the Commission, the European Parliament and the member states must all push for more sustainable plastic action.