There is something incongruous about an Oscar winning actor admonishing the rest of us about rampant consumerism, and the more so when he lives in a fifteenth century Irish castle. I raised a wry smile, therefore, when the European Commission produced Jeremy Irons at its press conference last week to launch its green paper on plastic waste.
Now I am a fan of Irons the actor. His recent Henry IV in the television production “The Hollow Crown” was masterful as was his accompanying exploration of Shakespeare’s history plays. Whether he has any special insight into plastic waste is, however, more questionable.
The EU has produced at least 12 Directives on waste generation since the 1970s covering everything from reducing waste in landfill sites to specific legislation on the disposal of electronic and electrical equipment and of used vehicles. The green paper is, however, the first specifically to address plastic waste.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik explained, “Plastic is often perceived as a cheap and disposable material in our ‘throw-away’ society, and recycling rates are low,” “Half of all plastic waste generated in Europe goes to landfill which should be avoided as plastic can contain hazardous components and disposal can result in undesirable emissions and concentrated, polluting residues.”
That we are careless about use and disposal of plastics I don’t deny although I think there is room for debate on the best way of dealing with the problem. Where I take issue with the Commissioner (and Irons) is in seeing it as a European Union competence.
Some plastic waste ends up in the sea and can be considered a “cross border issue” in the sense that my coca cola bottle can end up on the beach at Calais or Knokke. But that could be dealt with by legislation specifically controlling sea-borne waste. In almost every other sense the disposal of waste is an issue that could sensibly be left to national (or even local) governments. In 2002, Ireland introduced a 15 cent charge on single use plastic shopping bags and last year Italy banned non- biodegradable bags. Capannori in Italy has followed a zero-waste strategy. Other countries can look at the costs and benefits of these policies and choose or not to emulate them.
Too often the EU’s response to any problem is Europe-wide legislation. The Treaty on the European Union mandates that “decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of Subsidiarity”. Waste disposal can reasonably be left to national or local governments.