Not bold enough: the fight against plastic pollution

The fight against plastic pollution will not be won just by enacting new laws. It requires an orchestrated effort from private and public stakeholders and the general public

Malta was among the first countries to ban a number of single-use plastic items as of this year, anticipating EU deadlines and taking a more hard-line approach.

The implementation of this measure as well as the transposition of the EU Directive is ongoing, and well ahead of deadlines.

2021 will be somewhat of a transitory year with the ban on importation of various SUP products including plastic bags, cutlery, straws, plates, cotton buds, food containers, stirrers and the such – as in 2022, the sale and distribution of these items will be legally prohibited.

Yet the single-use plastics ban was described as ‘not bold enough’.

It could help to understand some context and the motivations behind the ban itself, as well as its ‘exemptions’.

Crucially, the SUP Directive is not a ban on plastics; it’s a step towards tackling pollution particularly in our seas. The directive aims to prevent marine litter by mainly phasing our unnecessary single-use plastics, starting by the most common products which have been found to pollute our seas.

Prior to prohibiting certain items from being placed on the market, it is pivotal to take into account the full spectrum of potential issues that such measures could bring about.

There need to be suitable alternatives, with tangibly better environmental performance. They also need to be readily available on the market – while also taking into proper account of other issues pertaining health, hygiene, and food waste.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown us the important role played by certain plastic items in such extraordinary circumstances. And that extraordinary circumstances are not as far-fetched as we might tend to believe.

This is the reason why the EU SUP Directive – which does not ban plastic carrier bags – and the related piece of national legislation, limit the list of SUP products banned from being placed on the national and EU market to a list of items.

Similarly, the EU Packaging Directive exempts very lightweight plastic carrier bags when they are used for hygiene purposes or as primary packaging for loose food – also to avoid food wastage, which is another critical environmental issue.

To this end, Malta has decided to exempt such bags only when they are used for these specific purposes. This means that the exemption is not a general one, and would only be allowed for its intended use.

Recently-introduced national legislation on single-use plastic items also prohibits the placement on the market of all oxo-degradable plastic products, including plastic carrier bags. Oxo-degradable plastic carrier bags are the most harmful bags to the marine environment since they break down to micro-fragments. And this is another example of Malta taking a proactive approach, over and above, in favour of our environment.

It could therefore be argued that, all things considered: banning wet-wipes in the midst of a pandemic is not ‘bold’, and the call for a full ban of all plastics uncovers a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of plastics in the modern world.

The reason grocers and supermarkets tend to use plastic packaging is not sinister: this type of packaging can be important in preserving food and preventing waste -- and minimising waste is crucial for environmental protection. Not to mention factors such as food security and the importance of conserving valuable resources.

The only sustainable way to limit waste and have an environmentally-friendly approach is to be intelligent about our consumption: a factor that decisionmakers are well-aware of when looking to strike that balance. And it’s not a balance for balance’s sake, nor does it have a purely economic motivation. The reality is that, removing all plastic, entirely and abruptly, from our food system might not be the best solution when it comes to protecting the environment.

From farm to shelf, plastic has played a crucial role in preserving our food. But this doesn’t mean that alternatives are not possible in the future or that a future ban is out of the question. It cannot be altogether excluded that additional categories of lightweight plastic carrier bags, for instance, will be banned in the future as feasible alternatives become available.

The reality is that Malta has gone a few crucial steps beyond the Directive. And understandably so – as an island state, marine pollution affects our economy, wellbeing, and resilience significantly. It is entirely in our interest to tackle the biggest threats to our marine ecosystems. But much like an ecosystem, this cannot be seen in a vacuum.

Malta has applied a stricter approach than the said Directives, as the entry into force of the ban on the targeted SUP items has been anticipated to the 1st of January 2021.

Member states also have the option of choosing between economic incentives when it comes to lightweight plastic carrier bags – but Malta has opted for the restrictions on placing them on the market in the first place, in order to achieve a sustained reduction in their consumption overall.

Malta’s recent legislative initiatives also need to be assessed in the context of the new long-term waste management plan, notably in the case of biodegradable and compostable plastic carrier bags: the planned new waste management infrastructure will in fact allow for the treatment of organic waste together with biodegradable and compostable plastic bags in an environmentally sound manner, with a view to producing high-quality compost.

From an environmental point of view, this is an important added-value brought about by this national law.

The ban is a first step in the fight against single-use plastics which are harmful to the environment – but also a significant step.

The next step is also crucial, as we would not only ban the importation of such items but we will be working on the second set of legislative proposals to ban the sale and distribution of such items.

The fight against plastic pollution will not be won just by enacting new laws. It requires an orchestrated effort from private and public stakeholders and the general public. A culture shift of sorts which needs to be bold, but gradual, to ensure that everyone embraces these changes without creating new imbalances.