Plastic in our life – Carmel Cacopardo

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) is currently engaged in a public consultation regarding single use plastic. This contrasts with the more wide-ranging EU strategy which considers plastic in a wider and more holistic context.

The basic issue to be addressed is the need to entrench life-cycle thinking in our policy making. This signifies, in particular, that in the manufacture and use of materials, the environmental impacts at each stage of a product’s “life” are considered and analysed at the drawing board. This is a process which runs from the very resources used in the production right to the disposal or reuse of the product.

The current debate is concerned with the disposal of single use plastic which is the source of a waste stream that needs to be urgently addressed as it has increased exponentially over the years.

The public consultation document issued by the ERA is entitled: Single-Use plastic products Strategy for Malta. On the other hand, the EU strategy document is entitled A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.

The local debate is being channelled towards addressing the minimisation of waste in contrast to the EU debate which is more wide ranging, focusing on the role of the circular economy. The contrast is significant and identifies the lack of depth in local policy making.

The most obvious issue with plastic is the need to reduce its contribution to the waste stream. In this respect, the Maltese consultation document adequately addresses the need to reduce consumption as well as the improvement of the economics and quality of recycling. It identifies a number of items in daily use which are part of the problem. Essentially it focuses on the disposal society with disposable cups, straws, cutlery, bottles and food containers topping the list. We have to address our behaviour and opt more often to use non-disposables! It is an uphill struggle to avoid moving along the road we have been led for so long.

Ironically, among the policy options which the Maltese consultation document highlights are economic disincentives and fiscal measures. This might remind readers of the “eco-contribution” which was introduced in a haphazard manner by the Lawrence Gonzi administration way back in 2005. This fiscal measure was brought about in order to address the waste generated by single-use plastics: primarily  plastic water bottles.

The eco-contribution was scrapped by the current government. It would be interesting if we could have more information as to what fiscal measures are being contemplated as part of the implementation process of the local plastics strategy because through a perusal of the consultation document, we are none the wiser.

It would be pertinent to point out that one of the practical measures being contemplated to address head-on the recycling of plastic bottles is a plastic packaging deposit scheme. If implemented, this would go a long way to addressing the plastic waste stream. Way back in 2004/5 this same proposal was put forward by beverage producers in Malta as an alternative to the introduction of the eco-contribution. The proposal was unfortunately shot down by representatives of retailers as they did not want to deal with waste.

Less bickering in the past would have placed the country in a much better position to address plastic waste today. Fifteen years of productive work have been lost as the then government did not have the will to proceed.

The EU plastics strategy goes much further than addressing the plastic waste stream. We require a clear vision on the role of plastics in the circular economy, a point which is missed by the local strategy. Challenges must be transformed into opportunities through which the use of resources is maximised.

Take a look at nature. It does not waste anything. The leaves which a tree sheds are taken up by the soil as a source of nutrition and recycled. The basic idea of the circular economy is modelled on nature, which works in a cyclical manner.

This ought to be the way forward. We need a strategic vision not just on how to deal with plastic waste, but more on how the use of plastic could contribute to the circular economy.

Carmel Cacopardo
Published in the Malta Independent – Sunday 9 June 2019