EU Parliament votes to ban single-use plastic

Members of the European Parliament have voted in favour of a law banning single-use plastics commonly found on European beaches including drinking straws, cutlery and abandoned fishing gear.

The vote, which follows a Parliamentary endorsement in 2018, saw 560 members voting in favour of the law, 35 voting against and 28 abstaining.

Targeted products include plastic cotton buds, plates, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons which form up to 70 per cent of all marine litter items.

The law requires all European States to ban single-use and oxo-degradable plastic and polystyrene cups by 2021. Members will also have to achieve a 90 per cent collection target for plastic bottles by 2029.

Under the law plastic bottles will need to be manufactured with at least 25 per cent recycled content by 2025, with a 30 per cent target set for 2030.

The legislation will strengthen the application of the polluter pays principle by introducing extended responsibility for producers. For example a manufacturer of fishing gear, not the fisherman, would bear the cost of collecting nets lost at sea. Legislation also stipulates that labelling on the negative environmental impact of products should be mandatory.

Lead Member of Parliament Frédérique Ries said the legislation would reduce the EU’s environmental damage bill by €22 billion.

“Europe now has a legislative model to defend and promote at an international level given the global nature of the issue of marine pollution involving plastics. This is essential for the planet,” she said.

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New report urges caution for biodegradable bags

A new report from Europe has found issues with testing on biodegradable plastic bags and urges caution when considering whether they should be exempt from plastic bag bans and levies.

Jesse Harrison and co-authors argue in the report that existing industry standards and test methods are insufficient when it comes to predicting how biodegradable plastic bags break down in lakes, rivers and marine environments.

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The Biodegradability standards for carrier bags and plastic films in aquatic environments report was commissioned by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and involved the University of Edinburgh, the University of Vienna, and the University of Helsinki.

said the data obtained by current standards, test methods and specifications can significantly underestimate how long it takes for polymer biodegradation in natural ecosystems.

“Existing biodegradability standards and test methods for aquatic environments do not involve toxicity testing or account for potentially adverse ecological impacts of carrier bags, plastic additives, polymer degradation products or small plastic particles that arise via fragmentation,” the report said.

Auckland University of Technology Professor Thomas Neitzert said this research helps destroy the current thinking a plastic bag with a biodegradable label is safe for the environment.

“The co-existence of conventional plastic bags and so-called biodegradable plastic bags of compostable materials is also upsetting current recycling operations and is confusing the general public,” Dr Neitzert said.

“The current standards are not taking properly into account real-life conditions and are therefore underestimating the break-down times of plastic materials.

“The standards are also not accounting for the damage of break-down particles on marine life when they are digested. A biodegradable plastic bag is potentially dangerous to marine life from the moment it enters the water until it dissolves into micro- or nanoparticles over many years,” he said.

University of Waikato Professor Kim Pickering said the review provided an excellent overview of the current assessment of biodegradability, including its shortfalls.

“It is important to assess how long things take to degrade in real situations and also what they break into and the consequences of that and we need to address such shortfalls,” Dr Pickering said.

“If it is to be assumed that we cannot prevent some plastic products getting into the environment, then biodegradable plastics could be a step in the right direction (depending on the product),” she said.

“It shows that there are great uncertainties regarding the impact these could have on the environment and so we should still assume responsibility of waste and consider its disposal, whether biodegradable or not.”

Great Pacific Garbage Patch bigger than originally thought

Over 79 thousand tonnes of plastic is floating inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 16 times higher than originally estimated, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

The report examined a major ocean plastic accumulation zones between California and Hawaii called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Laurent Lebron and colleagues authored the study and found the amount of microplastics in the area were also rapidly accumulating, from 0.4 kilograms squared in the 1970s to 1.23 kilograms squared in 2015.

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According to the report, 99.9 per cent of all debris in this part of the ocean is made up of plastics. 46 per cent of this plastic is made up of fishing nets and three quarters of the debris was larger than 5 centimetres, including hard plastics and film.

Microplastics accounted for 8 per cent of the total mass of the plastics but made up 94 per cent of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces floating in the area.

The researchers observed that common packaging plastics polyethylene and polypropylene were among some of the only types of debris thick enough to remain buoyant and remain in the zone.

While most of the larger items had broken down into fragments, researchers were able to identify containers, bottles, lids, packaging straps, and ropes. Some items in the test still had a readable production date, with one of the earliest being from 1977.

Aerial imaging and 652 net tows were used to capture the data. The differences between the estimates could be attributed to better technology allowing for a more accurate measurement, or an increasing level in ocean pollution in the areas following the 2011 Tohoku tsunami.

The report’s authors caution that more research is needed to quantify sources of ocean plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and to better assess how long plastics stay in the area.

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