EU’s plastic ban officially comes into force. Here’s what you should know

A European Union (EU) directive from 2019 restricting certain single-use plastic products has now officially come into force, forcing governments to stop selling cutlery, straws, stirrers, bags, cotton bud sticks, and polystyrene drinks and food containers — plastics which account for 70% of the marine litter in Europe. 

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic

The ban is part of a larger effort by Europe to cut plastic pollution by creating a circular economy model. By the end of the decade, the bloc aspires to have a de facto ban on throwaway plastics, a comprehensive reuse system for all other plastics, and an expensive and potentially lucrative European market for recycled plastics. 

EU member states have already created their own laws to implement the single-use plastics directive. Italy and Belgium introduced a plastic tax to disincentivize their use and France banned most fruit and vegetable packaging, for example. Overall, everyone will have to be in line with the circular economy model by the end of the decade. 

A circular economy is one in which all products and materials are used along their entire life cycle – from their design and manufacturing to reuse or recycling. This is in contrast with the current system, in which products end up in the trash instead of being reintroduced into the production process and extending their life cycle. 

The EU measures against plastic are already considered some of the toughest in the world, with the bloc having already pushed plastic packaging recycling rates to 41.5% – three times higher than in the US. Now, the bloc will seek to recycle 50% of the plastic packaging by 2025. And in 2025, a separate collection target of 77% will be in place for plastic bottles.  

The new plastic-free regime will rely on the widespread adoption of extended producer responsibility schemes. This means that if a company introduces packaging or packaged goods into a country’s market, that company remains responsible for the cost of collection, transportation, recycling or incineration of the plastic products. 

EU companies will also no longer be allowed to unload plastic waste on countries in the developing world such as Malaysia, Vietnam, India and Indonesia. This had been a strategy employed by several developed countries arond the world. Now, Europe will tackle the entirety of the plastic waste burden itself, which is where the new directive enters.

The plastic ban will also help the bloc to meet its ambitious climate target of reducing emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. The bloc estimates that the decline in plastic production could cut 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, as well as prevent environmental damages that would cost up to 22 billion euros by 2030.

Is it enough, though?

Environmental organizations argue that that the 10-item ban only covers 1% of Europe’s plastic production, which is not nearly enough. They also said that the total quantity of plastic waste generation hasn’t declined in Europe, something the new measures seek to reverse, and questioned that medical-related plastics were exempted from the new rules. 

Face masks and gloves have become widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic, ending up as waste in land and marine environments and causing potentially harmful impacts on ecosystems. For researchers, disposable face masks have become as problematic as plastic bottles or even worse, with 129 billion used every month

Bottles, packets and wrappers, tobacco filters, sanitary items, wet wipes and beverage and food containers for immediate consumption will be only restricted and not properly banned. This means that producers can still use them but will have to pay for the clean-up and carry out awareness campaigns about the impact.

While EU countries still produce large amounts of plastic, the amount of post-consumer plastic waste sent to recycling increased 92% since 2006, according to PlasticsEurope, a leading pan-European association that represents plastics manufacturers. Meanwhile, landfilling has decreased by 54%. All plastic producers have to pay a levy of 800 euros per metric ton of non-recycled plastic packaging waste. 

Worldwide, between 14% and 18% of plastics are recycled, less than half the EU average. The US generates the largest amount of plastic waste in the world and only recycles less than 10%. The country’s strategy of sending plastic waste abroad was disrupted by China’s recent decision to no longer accept imported waste. Plastic pollution is one of the largest environmental crises mankind is facing at the moment.

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