Is this the Solution to the EU Plastic Dilemma?

by dwyerh on October 6, 2017 - 6:31pm

The European Union (EU) recently rejected the proposal of a tax that would be placed on the distribution and disposal of single-use plastic products. Instead of the tax, the EU committed to running a series of public awareness campaigns relating to the impacts of plastics on the environment. Justifying this decision, the vice president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, says that a tax implemented by the EU on plastics would not be sustainable, and that changing the way plastic was produced and used could be more effective. Timmermans explains further by referencing the issues of micro-plastics in oceans and how it is difficult to tax ocean polluters and use taxes to remove plastics from the oceans. By exercising control over the public discourse, the EU plans on changing consumer behaviour, which will then discipline companies into adopting better plastic habits. 
At this point in the semester, we have come to understand that there are tools used to implement state-led resource management. There are substantive, procedural and institutional tools. In this case of the EU, the tax and the awareness campaign both fall into the category of being substantive policy tools, where they are intended to directly change a certain behaviour. However, they differ because the tax is an economic policy instrument, while the awareness campaign is an outreach policy instrument. 
The decision to avoid using an economic instruments to solve pollution problems could be very beneficial to the EU. Taxes and other economic policy instruments have a habit of developing a market for ‘environmental bads’. An example of this is where governments benefit from the revenue created from bad environmental behavior (i.e. polluting fines and carbon taxes) and thus becomes dependent on this bad behaviour for the purpose of revenue generation. By dismissing the idea of a tax or a fine for single-use plastics, the EU has avoided a scenario where it becomes detrimentally dependent on people producing and consuming single-use plastics.
The use of outreach policy instruments has proven to be effective. Controlling the public discourse or influencing the opinions of people has created unanticipated and substantial changes within society. One example Timmermans gives from the article is the awareness around recycling. Timmermans says, “That was what happened with recycling. Who made us recycle? Our kids. I don’t think there is one producer of consumer goods that would go against the grain of public awareness”. In this passage, Timmermans tries to explain that changing the public discourse on an issue has worked in the past, and in order to stay relevant, producers will follow trends and adhere to the opinions of the public. This solves the problem of single-use plastics because if people are opposed to the idea and change their consumer habits, then producers will change their producing habits.
In summary, I believe that this decision made by the European Union is a step in the right direction. I believe that this decision was well thought through and takes into account the pre-existing conditions, behaviours and relationships between governments, consumers and producers. The use of economic instruments, especially as it relates to environmental issues, can be politically unpopular and only works under particular conditions. But by using outreach instruments, like the one proposed by the EU, it can encourage action that is momentous, without the use of direct economic incentives.  
Harvey, F. (2017, October 06). EU rules out tax on plastic products to reduce waste. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from
Photo Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki