Europe Bans Plastics for Ocean Health

Plastic fishing gear and strapping litters a beach in northern Norway, which is not an EU member state. April 27, 2014 (Photo by Bo Eide) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis

BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 30, 2018 ( News) – Beachgoers love to have fun in the sun, eating, drinking and smoking all the while, but the plastic food and drinks containers, straws, cigarette butts and plastic carrier bags they use just once are littering oceans and seas and piling up on coastlines.

Plastics can be carried by wind and rain into drains or rivers that flow into the sea. Plastics can blow away from landfills and end up in rivers or oceans.

A member of the Gullane Beaver Scout Group finds cotton buds with plastic stems on Scotland’s Gullane Beach, January 11, 2018 (Photo by Scottish Government) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Now the European Commission is proposing new EU-wide rules to target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear.

Announcing the new rules on Monday, EU Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, said, “Plastic can be fantastic, but we need to use it more responsibly. Single use plastics are not a smart economic or environmental choice, and today’s proposals will help business and consumers to move towards sustainable alternatives.”

“This is an opportunity for Europe to lead the way, creating products that the world will demand for decades to come, and extracting more economic value from our precious and limited resources.”

“Our collection target for plastic bottles will also help to generate the necessary volumes for a thriving plastic recycling industry,” said Katainen, who hails from Finland on the Baltic Sea, where waste generated by recreational and tourism activities is piling up.

With the new rules, Europe is tackling the 10 plastic waste items most found on Europe’s beaches and promoting sustainable alternatives.

If the proposed rules become law, there will be a plastic ban on products where alternatives are readily available and affordable. The ban will apply to plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks, and for balloons, which will all have to be made exclusively from more sustainable materials instead.

These 10 types of items together account for 70 percent of the marine litter in Europe.

  1. Cotton buds: Ban on single use cotton buds made with plastic, to be replaced on the market with sustainable alternatives.
  2.  Cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers: Ban on single use cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers made with plastics, to be replaced with more sustainable alternatives.
  3. Sticks for balloons and balloons: Plastic sticks for balloons to be banned and replaced with sustainable alternatives. On balloons, producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection, waste treatment and introduce new labelling on the environmental impact of the product and recycling options for consumers.
  4. Food containers: Significant national consumption reduction of plastic food containers. Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment.
  5. Cups for beverages: Significant national consumption reduction of plastic cups for beverages. Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment.
  6. Beverage bottles: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of beverage containers; product design requirements to attach caps and lids to beverage containers; 90 percent separate collection target for plastic bottles. Member States will be obliged to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example, through deposit refund schemes.
  7. Cigarette butts: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, cleanup, collection and waste treatment of cigarette butts and other plastic tobacco product filters.
  8. Bags: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of lightweight plastic carrier bags, in addition to existing measures in the existing Plastic Bags Directive.   After addressing plastic bags in 2015, 72 percent of Europeans said they have cut down on their use of plastic bags, according to Eurobarometer.
  9. Crisp packets/sweets wrappers: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of plastic packets and wrappers.
  10. Wet wipes and sanitary items: New labelling requirements for sanitary towels and wet wipes to inform consumers on environmental impact of the product and how to dispose of it properly. Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of wet wipes.
  11. Fishing gear: For fishing gear, which accounts for 27 percent of all beach litter, the Commission aims to complete the existing policy framework with producer responsibility schemes for fishing gear containing plastic.

Producers of fishing gear containing plastics will be required to cover the costs of waste collection from port reception facilities and its transport and treatment. They will also cover the costs of awareness-raising measures.

The Commission reasons that the new rules will give companies a competitive edge. Having one set of rules for the whole EU market will create a springboard for European companies to develop economies of scale and be more competitive in the booming global marketplace for sustainable products, the Commission said in a statement.

By setting up re-use systems, such as deposit refund plans, companies can ensure a stable supply of high quality material.

In other cases, the incentive to look for more sustainable solutions can give companies the technological lead over global competitors.

The packaging producers, on whose cooperation the success of these new rules depends, appear to be on board.

Kristian Hall, president of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment , said on May 23, “Our industry is committed to supporting increased recycling of its packages and securing long-term sustainable recycling solutions. Hence, the members of ACE, BillerudKorsnäs, Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Stora Enso and Tetra Pak, have decided to launch a dedicated platform to drive and coordinate the industry’s engagement in beverage carton recycling, including the non-paper components of our packages across Europe.”

The new platform will be based in Frankfurt, Germany. It will collaborate with national carton industry associations, member company initiatives and other stakeholders.

Hall said, “Recognizing that sustainable recycling programs require collaboration within and beyond our own industry, the new platform will actively seek alliances and partnerships with industry actors sharing similar needs to optimize recycling solutions.”

All the materials used in beverage cartons are recyclable. Recycling beverage cartons reduces carbon emissions and enables a better use of raw material resources.

Recycling of beverage cartons in Europe (EU-28) has grown steadily over the last years, with around 430,000 tonnes recycled in 2016. This represents a rate of 47 percent of all cartons sold in Europe being recycled, with some countries like Belgium or Germany having rates over 70 percent.

PlasticsEurope, an association of plastics manufacturers, says it has been “at the forefront of the fight against marine litter and is fully committed to helping put an end to the leakage of plastics into the environment.”

But PlasticsEurope is against plastic product bans. The association says, “…plastic product bans are not the solution and will not achieve the structural change needed to build the foundation for a sustainable and resource efficient economy; as alternative products may not be more sustainable.”

To reduce littering, PlasticsEurope wants governments to integrate the issue of marine litter in their national waste management strategies. It says waste management infrastructure needs to be improved so that all plastic waste is collected and then used as a resource. Landfilling has to be avoided.

PlasticsEurope supports innovation and mindful product design and also supports awareness-raising campaigns, “which lead to responsible consumption and an understanding that waste is a resource.”

Together, the new rules are expected to put Europe ahead of the curve on a big issue with global implications.

The EU’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development, said, “This Commission promised to be big on the big issues and leave the rest to Member States. Plastic waste is undeniably a big issue and Europeans need to act together to tackle this problem, because plastic waste ends up in our air, our soil, our oceans, and in our food.”

“Today’s proposals will reduce single use plastics on our supermarket shelves through a range of measures,” said Timmermans. “We will ban some of these items, and substitute them with cleaner alternatives so people can still use their favorite products.”

Featured Image: Plastic litters a beach on the Atlantic Ocean at Igueldo, Basque Country, Spain,  February 17, 2009 (Photo by Igeldo Donostia) Creative Commons license via Flickr

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