EU’s ban on single-use plastics: Australian potential

The European Union has taken steps to ban a number of single-use plastics from its member states. Waste Management Review looks at the implications of this and whether similar measures would be palatable in Australia.

push to ban single-use plastics such as balloons, plastic bags, coffee cups, straws and cutlery by a Melbourne council was met with some derision earlier this year.

The City of Darebin’s plan to eliminate single-use plastics at events run by council or held on council land, buildings and venues was referred to in a News Corp publication as “ridiculous” and “virtue signalling” by conservative think tank – the Institute of Public Affairs.

The Balloon Artists and Suppliers Association argued that latex balloons should be excluded from the ban. 

While criticism of any ban is often inevitable, it raises questions as to whether such a move is palatable in Australia. 

At the end of May, the European Commission, which can propose legislation subject to review from the European Parliament and council, proposed new EU-wide rules to target 10 single-use plastic products. While stopping short of an outright ban, the commission proposes single-use plastic products be banned where alternatives are ready available and affordable. 

While there will be different measures for certain products, the commission reported there will be a ban on plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons, which will all be made exclusively from more sustainable materials. Single-use drink containers made with plastic will only be allowed if their caps and lids are attached to the materials. 

The focus will be on limiting products without straightforward alternatives through a national reduction in consumption, design and labelling requirements and waste management/clean-up obligations for producers. 

According to an explanatory document, in line with the “producer pays” principle, it says extended producer responsibility schemes should be brought in to cover the cost of waste management and litter clean-up for single-use plastics. These will be covered by plastic sticks, food containers, beverage cups and containers, cigarette butts, bags, wet wipes and sanitary items and fishing gear.

At the same time, member states will be obliged to collect 90 per cent of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2025 through measures such as container deposit schemes. Certain products will require standardised labelling which indicates how waste should be disposed, the negative impact of the product and the presence of plastics in the products. The commission urged other institutions to treat this as a priority and deliver tangible results for Europeans before European Parliament elections in 2019. 

In June, a Federal Government senate inquiry committee recommended the Federal Government phase out all single-use plastics by 2023, acknowledging this would require careful consideration and developed through the state and territory meeting of environment ministers. Likewise, the committee called for the establishment of a Plastics Co-Operative Research Centre to lead Australia’s research efforts into reducing plastic waste, cleaning up our oceans and finding end markets for recovered plastics. It’s up to the Federal Government now to respond to these and 18 other recommendations. 

Jenni Downes, Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, tells Waste Management Review she believes Australia can learn lessons from the EU in achieving the right balance between reuse and recycling.

“This policy is not meant to be a big stick and accounts for the fact that the technology needs to be made available,” Jenni says.

She says an important factor is having the EU set the direction for its member states, will provide greater impetus for more major businesses to step forward and set their own sustainability targets.

“The fact that Europe is doing this should say to Australia “this is where we should end up”, because we are still catching up to where they’re at.

“We have the 2025 target for all packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable material, but at this stage there is no ‘sub target’ that says at least some needs to be reusable. Ideally you aim for some reusable and the rest recyclable/compostable.”

She says there has been very little momentum on the consumer side of reusable packaging, with only a niche market for products such as Keep Cups that is slowly building.

Associations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have run grants, including its New Plastics Economy initiative to make all plastics recyclable. It notes about 13 per cent of today’s packaging is made from materials fused together. 

“The interesting thing is that when you look at straws, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ran a competition on circular design and got people to put forward the idea of designing a straw incorporated into the bottle top lid so you don’t need a straw,” Jenni says.

According to Jenni, bioplastics which promote biodegradability can also have their pitfalls. This is due to the fact that when you consider a true circular economy, resources should be in use for as long as possible and their maximum value extracted. 

“Personally, I am not a big proponent of bioplastics as a silver bullet because after using them they dissolve and you don’t keep the resources to transform that into something new,” Jenni says.

“They’re great in the sense that they avoid litter, but too much focus on things like corn starch can be problematic. The corn has to be grown which requires energy and diverts agriculture from food production.” 

Belinda Christie, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Transitions at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, says we need to look deeper into the issue by ensuring the materials slated to be banned and their potential replacements undergo a lifecycle analysis. The idea behind this is not to simply replace the replacements with more harmful options.

She cites England’s Environment Agency, which conducted a review called Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006 and found that alternatives to single-use plastic bags such as paper, LDPE, non-woven PP and cotton bags need to be reused at least three, four, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure they have lower global warming potential than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused.

“We trust governments and organisations to tell us the truth about what is environmentally friendly, but it’s a bit more grey than that,” Belinda says. 

“Cotton, for example, is one of the most energy intensive crops in the world and just to produce cotton bags adds so much in the way of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, much more so than a very thin small plastic bag would.”

Belinda says manufacturers and government authorities alike should be asking questions such as how much energy is going into manufacturing the reuse of alternatives, including metal straws? 

For example, she says, plastic straws could be more a more sustainable single use option than, for example, a metal straw. A lot of plastics labelled as biodegradable will only break down at high temperatures such as 50 degrees, she adds, and need to be exposed to UV directly. Therefore if they end up in the ocean or landfill, they can’t break down and end up as microplastics in the meantime. Ultimately, she says it’s about engaging consumers and manufacturers to look at the entire lifecycle of the alternative.  

“Although the EU ban seems to be targeted at saving marine life from harm, if we don’t do it right we actually risk not just increasing the amount of plastics in the ocean that are biodegradable, but we also have this risk of further exacerbating climate change, which has the potential to impact the ocean more so than bits of plastics floating around.”

According to an explanatory memorandum, the reasons for the proposal is linked to the amount of plastic marine litter in oceans and seas and its effect on the ecosystem, biodiversity and human health. It notes that plastic cotton bud sticks and sanitary applications aren’t well captured and end up on European beaches. The memorandum states about 85 per cent of marine litter in the union is plastic. 

Ian Rae, an honorary chemistry professor at Melbourne University’s School of Chemistry and advisor to the United Nations Environment Programme, notes that, as many materials are already imported from overseas, the net effect would mean many materials used in Australia would already be more sustainable once the EU policy is well entrenched. 

He says that pressure is already mounting on retailers to stock environmentally friendly products. For example, a canned product linked with bee deaths was pulled from retailers Bunnings, Woolworths and Coles after it was found to contain a harmful ingredient. 

Ian says that the culture of sustainability is even more influential in  Europe.

“I’ve done a lot of work with the United Nations Environment Programme which has looked at the banning of chemicals. In many cases, my European colleagues were more gung-ho about banning materials,” he says. 

On microplastics and their effect on marine life, Ian says that he doesn’t think there is much more evidence to come in this area to justify a shift towards reducing microplastics circulation. Recent estimates published in the scientific journal PLOS One suggest there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans, a figure which does not include waste on beaches or the seafloor. 

Ian says plastics do break down in the environment, but not by much, and the small microplastic pieces may cause more harm than the big, unsightly bits. 

A research paper by Swedish Örebro University, titled “Exposure and Effects of Microplastics on Wildlife”, defines microplastics as particles less than five millimetres and larger than 100 nanometres. The report indicates polymers like PVC and PU contain and potentially leach hazardous additives and monomers of concern.  

He says researchers have found birds with plastic bits in their guts. Ian says that the evidence that the birds are seriously affected by this is not yet strong, but it’s growing and so the anti-plastic pressure increases. 

Physical entanglement can be a problem, too, with the most graphic pictures showing turtles entangled in orphan fishing nets, but solving that problem is a lot more difficult than changing what’s on offer at the supermarket.

“As a scientist, I don’t think we will get much more evidence. You simply can’t experiment with an animal or person,” Ian says.

This article was published in the September issue of Waste Management Review.