We’re dependant on plastics, but now we’re drowning in it: how your city can stop the overflow

7 April 2020

Interview with Håkon Sandven Jentoft, Senior Executive Officer, Agency for Waste Management, City of Oslo

Plastics are increasingly making the headlines throughout Europe, why is this?

It’s simply the volume and prevalence of plastic in our everyday lives, and the realisation that this could have negative impacts on our health and the environment. Plastics as a material have developed into an indispensable material, but without taking the environmental and health effects into fully consideration. As cities, we see this as threat to biodiversity in our cities, in littering, in waste management and in our day to day production of services to our citizens. This stream of plastics is overwhelming for cities and we desperately need to start up our work to control the challenges of plastics.

What is the EU currently doing to tackle plastic waste?

Back in 2008, the European institutions adopted the revised Waste Framework Directive (WFD), this is the underlying tool aiming to turn us into a society that recycles. Amended in 2018, the WFD now includes targets for each of the steps on the waste hierarchy (prevent, re-use, recycle, recover, dispose):

  • Increase preparing for reuse and recycling of municipal waste to at least 55% of municipal waste by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035;
  • Increase recycling of packaging waste to at least 65% by 31 December 2025 and 70% by 31 December 2030;

The EU Action Plan for a circular economy identified plastics as a key priority area and committed the Commission to develop a strategy – the EU Plastics Strategy – to address the problems associated with plastic and to consider the whole life cycle. The Commission later confirmed it would work towards ensuring all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2030.

Of course most recently, we’ve seen the adoption of the Single-Use Plastics Directive in June 2019. This Directive aims to reduce the use of single-use plastics and improve recycling. It includes a ban on certain single-use plastics – such as cutlery, straws, cotton buds and plates – by July 2021 and says that drinking bottles (made from PET) must contain at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025, raising to 30% by 2030.

We’ve also seen in the recent communication on the European Green Deal mention of proposals for legislative waste reforms and – within the Zero Pollution Strategy – mention of research on microplastics. This must involve cities.

Why cities?

Cities are the hub of human activity. In Europe, over 70% of people live in urban areas which means we are central to consumption patterns and waste management practices. Cities play a big role in the leakage of plastics into the environment, for example through our sewage systems, rivers, quay fronts, beaches or littering in parks and forests. The way we live today creates a lot of single use plastics.

Cities are already taking action. As local authorities, we can start with our own production of services and make sure that we use plastics in a more sustainable way, for instant by using our purchasing power to phase out single-use plastics and encourage the use of recycled plastics in products. This means working with business to develop sustainable alternatives and communicating with our citizens to encourage sustainable consumption choices. Cities can link different stakeholders to develop solutions and measures.

What can cities do to help their citizens more easily reuse and recycle plastic products?

Prevention is the first step, always. But preventative measures will be different depending on what type of product you are targeting. Having and promoting water re-fill stations around the city can reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bottles. That’s not going to prevent someone from throwing away a fleece jacket, for example. The solution here could be a repair cafe where citizens can bring their broken items – clothing or electrical products – to be fixed. Many cities already have these, but they are quite often only pop-up shops, or open infrequently. For repair and reuse to become the norm, these must be regular, accessible and well promoted.

When something is beyond repair, it should of course be recycled. Separate waste collection is essential. The most advanced cities in recycling offer separate door-to-door collection.

Broadly speaking, it’s about having a strategy. Developing a holistic set of policies and measures that cover plastic consumption and waste management from all areas and stakeholders. It’s about creating cooperation with other stakeholders within the city and with other cities. This is what the Plastics Declaration aims to do.

What is the Plastics Declaration and why should cities sign it?

The Plastics Declaration is a joint initiative between Eurocities and the city of Oslo initiated in May 2019. Its overall aim is to significantly reduce and eventually eliminate the presence of unnecessary single-use plastics in cities.

Cities that sign up to the Declaration will develop an action plan by 2021 to significantly reduce the use of unnecessary plastic products and consumption of single-use plastics; to work with business and industry to incentivise a rapid transition from consumption of single-use plastics to sustainable products; to raise awareness amongst citizens; and to establish systems for separate collection of all plastic waste.

We now have 23 Eurocities members that have signed the Declaration, which is excellent. These cities commit to a cleaner, healthier city with improved waterways, green areas and healthier ecosystems. In addition, they reduce the need to incinerate plastic waste, a chief source of CO2 emissions in cities.

Is the Eurocities Plastics Declaration part of the Plastic Smart Cities Initiative?

Eurocities has teamed-up with WWF to take the fight against plastic to the global level with the Plastic Smart Cities Initiative. The Eurocities Plastic Declaration is the European branch of this global battle to take back control of our cities, significantly reducing plastic consumption and eliminating single-use plastic all together. Signatories of the Eurocities Plastic Declaration will feature on the global map of cities taking action and have the chance to be part of the platform showcasing and sharing ideas of different measures from Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States.

Once cities have signed the Declaration what happens then? How will you follow-up?

Cities have until 2021 to develop an action plan to tackle unnecessary single-use plastics. Experts from the Plastic Smart Cities Initiative will assess your city’s actions and provide guidance. To monitor progress, we’ve developed a simple framework of indicators available attached below.

It’s crucial that action plans cover all three of our key stakeholders – local government, business and citizens – and that they set clear time-bound targets for reducing plastic waste. We’ll want to see evidence of how cities are going to measure this over time.

This aspect of monitoring and reporting is aligned between the Eurocities Plastics Declaration and the Plastic Smart Cities Initiative.

What would you say to cities that are interested in signing the Plastics Declaration?

Please do it! We are continuing our campaign to gather signatures for the declaration. Eurocities will release a series of targeted articles highlighting what specific cities are doing to address the plastics problem and sharing their best practices with you. This is one of the greatest challenges of our times. Let’s take action now.

If you’re interested in signing the Plastics Declaration or would like to be considered for an article, please get in contact with Heather Brooks (