Ross Clark Ross Clark

The EU has ruined plastic water bottles

(Photo: iStock)

Hurrah, the problem of plastic waste has been sorted – as of this summer all plastic water bottles sold in the EU have to come with a cap that is tethered to the rest of the bottle. If the cap comes attached to the bottle, goes the thinking, then consumers are less likely to discard it – bottle and cap will end up being recycled together.

Tethered bottle tops are yet one more example of the EU way of doing things

But don’t count on it. People have already started moaning that they are struggling to drink out of the new bottles because the cap is in the way, or that it makes it hard to pour from the bottle. There is a solution, of course, which is simply to rip off the cap – which anyone will be able to do so long as they are capable of summoning 25 Newtons of force (which is the required standard laid down in the new rules). But then that, of course, would defeat the whole object of the new rules.

Tethered bottle tops are yet one more example of the EU way of doing things. They are a pretty trivial inconvenience, and it is true that sometimes detachable bottle caps don’t always find their way into my recycling. But then they don’t really take us much closer to the very desirable objective of eliminating plastic waste in the environment; they merely please people of a bureaucratic mindset. The real problem is that plastics take far too long to degrade when they are discarded in the environment. That is what turns an irritating chronic problem – litter – into a much more serious and longer-term issue.

What the EU – and everyone else – needs to be doing is to develop, or encourage the development of, plastics which can do the job of existing materials but which will break down in the environment in a matter of weeks or months, like paper and cardboard. Once that can be achieved then we can pretty well stop worrying about single-use plastics. It won’t mean, of course, that it will suddenly become acceptable to leave litter around – but that the consequences of abandoning plastics will no longer be there for decades and centuries to come.

In the meantime, tethered bottle caps promise to become an example of the futility of Brexit when it comes to trying to escape EU product standards. It may seem a trivial thing, but as tethered bottle caps become ubiquitous in Britain over the next few months it will be a sign that manufacturers are going to go along with EU standards even when serving the UK market. If you are running a bottling plant why would you want to go to the expense of running two parallel production lines, one for products destined for the UK market and another for those destined for the EU?

If you voted Brexit because you wanted to escape from pettifogging EU rules, you may be about to be disappointed.


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