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Regulating the Plastic Age: EU single-plastics Directive

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Plastics! Everywhere! In your hands, into the bin and ... on the beach.

What to do about them?

The European Union is taking an active role and plans to ban certain type of plastics. Before panicking about never being able to drink your Coca Cola with straw ever again, read about what the ban is about, and how it will affect you.

Why tackle plastic waste?

First of all, let’s have a quick look at the reasons why the question of regulating our plastic waste is such a hot issue globally:

· 300 million tons of plastic products are generated every year worldwide (1/2 of it single-use plastics) (Plastic Oceans).

· 8+ million tons of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans every year worldwide (= 1 rubbish truck of plastic waste every 1 minute) (Plastic Oceans).

· In Europe only, 26 million tons of plastic waste is generated every year (European Commission 2018).

· Within the EU, 150,000-500,000 tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans every year (= 2-7,5 rubbish trucks of plastic waste every 1 hour) (European Commission 2018).

· Within the EU, 75, 000-300, 000 tons of micro-plastics released into the environment each year (European Commission 2018).

. Plastic doesn't decompose like organic matter, but disintegrates into smaller, microscopic shreds of plastic that could ultimately end up inside you.

What is going to be banned?

There has been a political reaction from Brussels to carpeting the oceans with plastic. The European Commission’s proposal on plastic regulation was presented to the European Parliament in May 2018, and and after the second vote of the European Parliament on 27th March 2019 became a Provisional agreement between the Parliament and Council of the EU. The provisional directive is aiming at the reduction of plastic waste impacting our environment:

1. Ban of Single-Use Plastics (SUP) where an alternative already exists: Cotton buds sticks, cutlery, straws, stirrers and balloon sticks.

2. Reducing SUP where no alternative exists by least 25 % by 2025: single-use burger boxes, sandwich boxes or food containers for fruits, vegetables, desserts or ice creams.

3. Reducing waste of cigarette filters containing plastics by 50 % by 2025 and by 80 % by 2030.

4. A 90% collection target was set for plastic bottles by 2029

5. Collection of lost or abandoned fishing gear containing plastic by 50% per year by the Member States, with a recycling target of at least 15% by 2025.

6. The European Parliament added banning some polystyrene to the directive: oxo-degradable plastics, such as bags or packaging and fast-food containers made of expanded polystyrene.

7. The Council of the European Union is, among others, adding extended producer responsibility schemes, an obligation on producers to cover clean-up costs and the costs of awareness raising measures. Thus the principle of the "polluter pays" is planned to be reinforced.

8. Plastics are a global problem. The directive aims towards a common policy among European states to regulate plastics. The potential for reducing plastics is severely mitigated if one state stops polluting and another continues; a common solution is needed to tackle plastics.

9. The Directive should come into effect by 2021.

In total, the Directive focuses on the 10 most found single use plastics and fishing gear, which together represent around 70% of all marine litter.

Just a new idea?

The Directive didn’t just appear because of the fact that banning marine plastic litter has become such a hot issue recently. The political process for planning plastics has been in the pipeline (so to speak) for years. The initiative for better plastic management was proposed by the European Commission in 2015, but informed by a research centre that cleaned 276 beaches in 17 EU member states analysing which sorts of plastic debris affected water quality. After a period of public consultation in which they received 1800 respondents, including NGO’s, public bodies and industry associates, the final directive was then submitted in May last year.

Not just a bureaucratic decision: Have a say as well!

The directive is still under the legislative process but the European Parliament and the Council of the EU have come to a provisional agreement on the final act. Though it’s a big step towards a common policy in reducing plastic waste, some activists are worried that the bill doesn’t go further. As a Directive rather than a regulation, the bill gives member states significant discretion in meeting the waste reduction targets. Moreover, activists are dismayed that some targets only need to be met by 2029.

Though the consultation period for this bill is over, you too can have a say over European environmental legislation. For future proposals, you can follow the period of public consultations of proposals you are interested in, contact your local representatives in the European Parliament as well as in the Council of the EU or get engaged on a national level. Moreover, better plastic regulation is not just a European issue, but a global one, and appealing to friends that live inside as well as outside the EU will go a long way to stopping the scourge of plastic pollution. 

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