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Mainichi interview: EU commissioner calls to consider binding int'l plastic waste treaty

Karmenu Vella (Photo courtesy of the European Commission)

Below is the text of an interview with European Union Commissioner Karmenu Vella ahead of the G-20 Energy and Environment Ministers' Meeting taking place in Karuizawa, in the central Japan prefecture of Nagano, on June 15-16, 2019. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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Mainichi: The EU became the first region in the world to introduce a comprehensive strategy for plastic waste. What other plans would you put forward to tackle marine plastic pollution at the G-20 meeting?

Karmenu Vella: We are indeed proud to be leading the way on plastics, and are encouraged to see the world following suit. The European Union's strategy on plastics is part of an overall EU strategy for the transition to a circular economy, which makes sense for the environment as much as for the economy. Our objective is that by 2030 all plastic packaging put on the market should be reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective way. Last month we also adopted new legislation to reduce the impact on the environment of certain single-use plastics products and fishing gear. Together, they constitute 70% of all marine litter items. We are banning products where alternatives to single-use plastic products exist, and for products without straightforward alternatives, the focus is on limiting their use, including through making the producers responsible for their disposal. Finally, we are taking action on microplastics intentionally added to products, e.g. in cosmetics or detergents, and microplastics resulting from the use of products (e.g. tires or textiles) or from primary plastic production (e.g. spills of pre-production plastic pellets).

What we are bringing to the G-20 is the need to embrace a holistic, resource-efficient and circular approach to plastic marine pollution. It targets not only waste management and waste water treatment, but unsustainable consumption and production of plastics, and addresses all sources of plastic litter, including fishing and shipping, microplastics, and in particular single-use plastic products.

For this, efficient and coordinated monitoring of plastic litter and of its impacts are essential. This can be done by implementing the 2017 G-20 Marine Litter Action Plan, including through the G-20 Implementation Framework for Actions on Marine Plastic Litter, proposed by Japan, and in close coordination with other fora where G-20 members participate, including regional seas conventions.

M: Nordic countries are calling for a new legally binding global treaty to beat marine plastic pollution. What is the Commission's position on this? Will non-binding measures be enough for the world to beat plastic pollution?

KV: Whether it comes from street litter, dumping, and packaging, or ships, fishing and aquaculture operations, the sources of plastic litter and microplastics are diverse. And so are the possible responses -- ranging from international political initiatives, regional measures, to legally binding treaties or other legally binding instruments that play a role in limiting marine plastic pollution from sea-based sources.

A recent example of a response that effectively addressed a real need is a decision by the Parties of the Basel Convention to better control international trade in plastic waste. Plastic waste was not subject to any international framework until now, and we have observed in the last decades a huge increase in plastic waste exports to countries that did not have the capacity to deal with it sustainably. This decision will help importing countries to control the types of plastic waste that is sent to them.

Multiple campaigns and efforts are also currently pushing for country action on the reduction and recycling of plastic products, but only a few countries are addressing the prevention side of the problem. The existing responses are fragmented, and do not match the urgency of the problem. In this light, a legally binding instrument to tackle plastic pollution across the full life cycle of plastics indeed merits further consideration.

In the meantime, we should focus on the proper implementation and development of existing tools, such as the recent amendment of the Basel Convention. If applied well, it could drastically reduce marine litter leakage to the environment.

M: Japan and the United States declined to sign the Ocean Plastics Charter at the G-7 Summit in Charlevoix. What is your view on this? Can you expect Japanese leadership to solve the matter as the G-20 chair?

KV: After the G-7 Summit in Charlevoix, two further G-7 meetings have reached full consensus on plastics-related actions -- the G-7 Marine Plastics Litter Innovation Challenge agreed in Halifax last year under Canada's presidency, and its follow up this year in Metz under French presidency. Both have seen the support of all G-7 members, including Japan and the United States.

In Metz, G-7 environment ministers agreed on some fundamental language on plastic pollution. They confirmed the need to better understand microplastic pollution, acknowledged the threat and damage to biodiversity and ecosystems caused by the unsustainable use and disposal of plastic products, highlighted the role of waste prevention; and finally stressed that resource efficiency and circular economy approaches, as well as innovation in reducing plastic waste, should be promoted.

This seems to me a very good and balanced approach for tackling the unsustainable use of plastics, and I do hope that Japan and the United States will support it in the ministerial discussions at the G-20 level in Karuizawa.

The G-20 needs to send a strong signal also in relations to third countries. The way forward is product design to avoid unnecessary plastic in the first place, followed by waste prevention and strict adherence to the waste hierarchy, and only at the end environmentally-sound waste management. After all, this is the Japanese 3Rs approach put in practice.

M: Some Asian countries including Japan and China see building waste-to-energy plants as part of the solution to marine plastics. Do you think burning waste is the right approach?

KV: In the EU, waste management is governed by the application of the waste hierarchy, which is designed to deliver the best overall environmental outcome and guide member states in their decisions. Energy recovery of waste is obviously not the prioritized waste treatment option. We should resort to it only when waste cannot be recycled, so as to avoid burying it in the ground, with all the negative consequences for human health and the environment. Fortunately, there are more and more innovative technological solutions for recycling different types of plastics and avoiding their incineration, landfilling, or worse, plastic littering.

For the prevention of littering, including in the marine environment, information campaigns to raise awareness can do wonders, and so can targeted measures against products that are the main sources of littering.

Waste-to-energy solutions for non-recyclable plastic waste can always be a solution versus disposal in landfills, as long as the process is highly energy-efficient. Dual output solutions like chemical recycling which can yield plastic recyclables and energy should also be considered for their specific benefits.

(Interviewed by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels correspondent)

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