EU to ban single-use plastics

The European Commission is proposing new EU-wide rules to ban 10 single-use plastic products which form 70 per cent of all marine litter items.

The proposal focuses on those items most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear.

The ban will apply to plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons which will all have to be made exclusively from more sustainable materials instead. Single-use drinks containers made with plastic will only be allowed on the market if their caps and lids remain attached.

Different measures will be applied to different products. Member States will have to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drinks cups. They can do so by setting national reduction targets, making alternative products available at the point of sale, or ensuring that single-use plastic products cannot be provided free of charge. Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers (such as for crisps and sweets), drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters (such as cigarette butts), wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags. The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products.

Member states will be obliged to collect 90 per cent of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example through deposit refund schemes.

Certain products will require a clear and standardised labelling which indicates how waste should be disposed, the negative environmental impact of the product, and the presence of plastics in the products. This will apply to sanitary towels, wet wipes and balloons.

Where alternatives are readily available and affordable, single-use plastic products will be banned from the market. For products without straight-forward alternatives, the focus will be on limiting their use through a national reduction in consumption, design and labelling requirements and waste management/clean-up obligations for producers.

The commission’s proposals will now go to the European Parliament and council for adoption. The Commission urged the other institutions to treat this as a priority file, and to deliver tangible results for Europeans before the elections in May 2019. More information is available here. 

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Australian experts reacted to the news below.

Dr Paul Harvey, of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Macquarie University, said the proposed ban, notably plastic straws and cotton buds, is welcome and very promising news.

“Single-use plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental catastrophes of this generation,” he said.

“We see single-use plastics distributed ubiquitously throughout the global environments, even to the darkest depths of our oceans. These single use plastics do not readily degrade so we will have these plastics in our environment for thousands of years to come.”

“Australia, given its precious natural assets such as the Great Barrier Reef, would benefit greatly from following the lead set by the EU on single-use plastics.”

Dr Belinda Christie, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University, said that while the EU plans to ban single-use plastic, we need to be careful that we don’t just replace one problem with another.

“Greener ‘biodegradable’ plastics are often marketed as the solution to our plastic problems on land and in our oceans, but we need to look deeper. These biodegradable plastics still require energy to create even if made from natural materials such as corn starch, and therefore still contribute to climate change,” she said.

“A lot of plastics labelled as biodegradable will only break down at higher temperatures, around 50 degrees celsius and if exposed to UV directly. So if they end up in the ocean, or even in landfill, they still can’t break down. While under artificial conditions they do break down eventually, they end up as microplastics in the meantime.

“Studies show that there is no significant difference between how biodegradable bags and plastic bags break down when eaten by marine life – meaning our biodegradable plastics ending up in the ocean can do just as much damage as a regular plastic bag.”