World News

EU Proposes Ban on Some Plastic Items to Reduce Marine Pollution

Posted May 28, 2018 7:39 p.m. EDT
Updated May 28, 2018 7:43 p.m. EDT

BRUSSELS — The European Commission on Monday proposed an ambitious set of measures to clean up Europe’s beaches and rid its seas and waterways of disposable plastics, and urged the European Union to lead the way in reducing marine litter worldwide.

The measures, which will need to be approved by the European Union’s 28 member states, would reduce or alter the consumption and production of the top 10 plastic items most commonly found on beaches, including straws, cotton swabs, disposable cutlery and fishing gear.

“We are at risk of choking our oceans in plastic, with a knock-on effect on our food chain and human health,” said Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, which is the bloc’s executive arm responsible for proposing legislation. “It’s in the air, it’s in our oceans, it’s in our food, and also in our bodies.”

“We will ban single-use plastics,” he said, and “lead the way” in a “global race to the top” to clean up the world’s oceans.

Several European countries, like Denmark, France, Belgium, Italy and Portugal, have already taken steps to reduce waste from plastics on a national level in recent years, and more than 85 percent of respondents in a European Union survey expressed strong support for the measures.

Although the process could take a year or more, if adopted, the proposal will impose different kinds of measures for different products. Where viable alternatives exist, single-use plastic products will be banned from the European single market. In other cases, member states will be directed to set national reduction targets.

For some plastics, producers will help cover the costs of waste management and raising awareness about the threats posed by plastic waste. Deposit-refund systems will be further encouraged, and member states will aim to collect for recycling 90 percent of all plastic bottles by 2025.

“What this means in practice is that you won’t see single-use plastic cotton buds on your supermarket shelves, but ones made with more environmental friendly materials instead,” Timmermans said. “The same will go for straws, drink stirrers, sticks for balloons, cutlery and plates.”

“You can still organize a picnic, drink a cocktail and clean your ears, just like before,” he said. “And you get the added bonus that when you do so, you can have a clear conscience about the environmental impact of your actions.”

Taken together, the measures would also contribute significantly to the achievement of the European Union’s climate goals, avoiding about 3.4 million metric tons, or about 3.7 million tons, of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, according to the European Union.

Forty-six billion bottles, 36 billion straws, 16 billion coffee cups and 2 billion plastic takeout containers are consumed annually in the European Union, according to a 2017 report from Seas at Risk, an organization of environmental groups across Europe that promote marine protection.

The report also stated that about 580 billion cigarettes are consumed and their butts discarded annually in the European Union. Under the proposed measures, each country would have to conduct awareness-raising educational campaigns about the disposal of “tobacco product filters,” and producers would have to share the costs of waste management.

Stakeholders from the plastics production industry and the fishing gear industry generally favored the European Commission’s proposal and indicated that further action was necessary, and even urgent. They particularly welcomed measures that urged producers to share responsibility for raising awareness and managing waste.

But some lobbyist watchdog groups warned that the efforts to approve the commission’s proposed measures would be met with resistance from some quarters of the plastics and packaging industry, which view the proposed regulations as “a horror prospect,” said Vicky Cann of the Corporate Europe Observatory, a nonprofit group that aims to expose the effects of corporate lobbying campaigns.

“We expect to see a big backlash from producers in the next months, who have already been very vocal against bans and financial obligations on producers, and who insist voluntary initiatives are enough to end the plastic crisis,” said Cann. “In the end, today’s proposal is only as good as its eventual implementation, which will follow after what is sure to be a fierce lobby battle.”

Many European countries have already introduced measures banning plastics in recent years. France banned ultralightweight plastic bags in 2015, and Italy did so in 2016. This year, Belgium, Denmark and Scotland are planning to ban several single-use plastic products, and Italy, Portugal and Spain are expected to introduce similar measures in the coming years.

Asked whether the European Union was planning to ban balloons, Timmermans insisted, “We’re not going to ban balloons.”

“I want to be very clear, these products won’t disappear,” he said, “they will just be made with different materials.”