The Covid-19 outbreak led to an inevitable need for single-use plastics, forcing the European Commission to postpone its plan to ban them in 2019, until July 2021. Masks and other PPEs, as well as tests, are the most evident examples of excess plastics that this pandemic has brought to our lives. Disposable plastics implicit in other segments such as food takeaway or ecommerce should be more easily replaceable. While banning single use plastics is proving complicated, there should be an increase in deposit systems to make sure that as much plastic waste is being recycled as possible in the region.
Currently, the European Commission’s restriction strategy may be particularly unfair for small and medium size enterprises, which contribute to the waste issue less than large companies due to their logistic operations being more streamlined. While large companies can easily adjust their profit margins to bear the increase in packaging costs, SMEs will find this more problematic and may struggle to remain competitive, particularly given the current disadvantageous economic climate of post-pandemic inflation, high energy prices and debt accrued during lockdowns. A subsidized strategy may get similar results while at the same time help SMEs navigate the plastic-free transition. This would enable companies, regardless of size and sector, to reduce plastic use as much as possible, without having to take on the increase in production and distribution costs alone.
Efforts to phase-out plastic will only work if it’s done sensibly and gradually, and the EU doesn’t need to look anywhere else to find the recipe for a successful transition like they have done with the transition to clean transport. Restricting gradually the production of the kind of product that you are interested in phasing-out, while at the same time, bonifying customers for choosing the cleaner option has worked in the transition from fossil fuel to electric vehicles. As it stands right now, the European Plastic Strategy seems too focused on completely erasing single-use plastics from the picture, even though they account for only 10% of the plastics being produced. The key here is promoting the development of alternatives that may have similar characteristics to plastic but are compostable and of less harm to the environment.
Although these are still quite uncommon, there have been some advances in the development of plastic-like materials that could become viable in the short-term. Among them, mycelium stands out as the material with the most potential to replace plastics across industries. There are numerous start-ups across Europe that have successfully kickstarted manufacturing operations proving that they can replace polystyrene with a mix of biodegradable mycelium and agricultural waste, at a similar price. Hopefully, in the era of ESG, it shouldn’t be that difficult for these start-ups to gather funds from big spenders. Additionally, supranational entities could make a huge impact by creating strict certifications of sustainability for these key enterprises that are fundamental for other industries to go green.