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France 24
France 24

'We cannot recycle our way out of the plastics crisis': EU Commissioner Sinkevičius


Getting the European Green Deal finished is one of the EU Commission's top priorities in the last few months of the current legislative term. At stake is a major transformation of Europe's economies and societies, which could see the continent become climate neutral by 2050. But while we hear a lot about energy strategy, we hear less about another core element of the Green Deal: oceans and fisheries. Our guest is the European Commissioner in charge of Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius. Before joining the EU Commission in 2019, he was Minister of Economy and Innovation in the government of Lithuania, and a member of the Lithuanian parliament. We discuss the contamination of Europe's seas and how all of our habits will need to change, particularly on single-use packaging.

We first take stock of the pollution of European seas – with the European Environment Agency highlighting problems in successive reports. "Pollution comes from the shore," Sinkevičius says. "It's industrial pollution. It's urban wastewater that's not being treated properly. It's partly agricultural too. All that pollution gets exacerbated by additional pressures, such as climate change. We see the temperature rise in the sea." So what is being done about that? "On chemical and fertiliser pollution, we have taken concrete steps under our Farm to Fork strategy. But it’s also extremely important that we deal with our waste; for example plastic packaging," Sinkevičius responds.

The Commissioner asserts that there is a "plastics crisis that we cannot recycle our way out of". He warns against "naivety", saying: "Plastic pollution especially, which comes from packaging, is significantly increasing. So you had an increase of recycling, but then the increase of plastic pollution was even more significant. And you basically have this growing gap between the two."

Asked if he has seen much lobbying by industries that are behind single-use packaging, Sinkevičius answers: "We have sometimes had some absurd discussions – the argument that, when there is a certain coating on plastic forks or spoons, that this coating does not make the product single use. And I think civil society was very active in all that. But I'm happy that we have advanced, and we now have 10 products that are under the single-use directive" [which bans their use when sustainable alternatives are easily available]. "But we want to go further," he adds. "We want to get rid of unnecessary packaging. So when you stay in a hotel, I still find it absolutely unnecessary to have those small bottles for shampoo and shower gel, which can be done in refillable."

Sinkevičius then turns to the COP28 summit that just took place in Dubai, and the issue of ocean governance, which is part of his portfolio at the European Commission. "We had an Oceans Day at COP28, which shows that this is at the core of climate talks. If oceans cannot mitigate and regulate temperature, we are busted," he says. "So of course we need healthy oceans. It's been a significant year because we've managed, after 20 years of negotiations, to finalise the agreement on the High Seas Treaty, and now we are advancing and pushing hard to for 60 countries to ratify it so that the agreement goes into effect. And that will give us a real tool to have a rules-based system for ocean areas that lie beyond national jurisdictions – which is actually the vast majority of ocean ecosystems."

Turning back to the EU, Sinkevičius addresses the key issue of air pollution, which has been linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths in Europe. Some EU capitals do not wish to set a binding commitment to match WHO recommendations on air quality, instead suggesting a "perspective for alignment". Sinkevičius affirms: "I honestly don't believe in voluntary targets. I don't believe that they can be reached. We are basically negotiating about the health of our citizens, about the number of Europeans that we lose every year. There is also a big loss for our economies because of the days that [ill people] cannot work. So this puts enormous pressure on our healthcare budget. It puts enormous pressure on our social budgets. I truly hope that member states will make those links."

Programme produced by Perrine Desplats, Sophie Samaille and Isabelle Romero

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