23-25 October, 2019

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07 December 2018

Single-use plastics ban: The lowdown What will Europe’s ban on single-use plastics mean for industry and the environment, and is it all good news?

The European Parliament’s announcement in late October this year that it would be imposing a wide-ranging ban on single-use plastics (or ‘SUPs’), to tackle pollution in seas, fields and waterways, has received mixed reactions from industry bodies, manufacturers and consumer groups.

Under the terms of the proposed directive, which was passed by a large majority – 571 votes to 53 – widely used plastic items such as straws, cotton swabs, disposable plastic plates and cutlery would be banned by 2021, and 90 per cent of plastic bottles recycled by 2025. Single-use plastic drink containers will only be allowed if their caps and lids remain attached to the package. Instead, all the above items would in future need to be made from more sustainable alternatives. The ban has been described by the European Commission as a “clampdown on the top 10 plastic products that most often end up in the ocean”.

Following the vote, European Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, said: “Today we are one step closer to eliminating the problematic single use plastic products in Europe. It sends a clear signal that Europe is ready to take decisive, coordinated action to curb plastic waste and to lead international efforts to make our oceans plastic-free.”

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Why single-use plastics?

It’s been increasingly widely publicised that huge amounts of plastic waste are washed into our oceans and waterways, where they can take centuries to fully degrade. Single-use items, which are more lightweight, can travel long distances with ease, damaging marine flora and fauna. And of the 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in Europe every year, less than 30 per cent is currently collected for recycling.

Given this, it is clear that the problem is one that needs addressing, and urgently. In this light, the European Commission’s clear signposting that it is committed to tackling it can surely only be a good thing.

The bioplastics viewpoint

But maybe it’s not quite so clear-cut: some industry bodies have expressed their reservations. For European Bioplastics (EUBP), which represents the interests of the European bioplastics industry, the move is largely a positive one but there are issues of food safety that cannot be ignored. It therefore believes that some modification is required to meet the realities of food consumption in Europe.

It cites, for example, certain closed-loop contexts, such as canteens, air travel or music events, at which single-use cutlery and plates can provide safety and hygiene for food and drinks while ensuring waste collection and recycling. Compostable plastics may be the answer here.

According to Francois de Bie, EUBP Chairman, “European Bioplastics fully supports the transition from a linear to a circular economy. Bioplastics enable more sustainable solutions for a range of products. We agree on the importance of reducing single-use plastic products where feasible, but hygiene and food safety cannot be compromised. With regard to some of the concerned single-use products – such as plates and cutlery – biodegradable compostable plastics provide an organically recyclable alternative.”

Lacking coherence

Elsewhere, some have voiced concerns that the initial proposals lack clarity. The industry body PlasticsEurope, which represents plastic manufacturing firms, said the measures voted in October had been passed too quickly and could therefore risk “generally blurring the market”. It claimed that definitions for ‘plastic’ and ‘single-use plastic’ were too ambiguous and cautioned against ‘disproportionate’ bans on some items.

It also suggested that an outright plastic ban does not address the root causes of marine plastic waste. According to a spokesperson: “Bans are not the solution. They will discourage investments that are crucial to further develop technologies and infrastructure to recycle plastics. The root causes of marine litter are improper waste management, a lack of awareness and littering behaviour: these are independent of material type.”

Philip Law, Director General of the British Plastic Federation, argues that plastics themselves are not the culprit, and that there is a tension between the perceived need to drastically reduce our use of plastic and the possible environmental benefits it can provide.

“It is important for governments across the globe to work together with brands, retailers and industry to identify and implement the most effective solutions to reducing the global issue of marine litter and we welcome much of the political will across Europe to take action. But we feel the proposal to target certain products made of expanded polystyrene is unjustifiably discriminatory and we also do not encourage bans on products. It is important to remember that plastic actually benefits the environment in a great number of ways, such as reducing food waste and lowering CO2 emissions.”

EUROPEN, European organisation for packaging and the environment, says that while it supports measures addressing the problem of plastic waste (its members have launched their own voluntary corporate commitments on recycled content for plastics), it has concerns that certain aspects of the Commission’s resolution have not been adequately examined.

According to EUROPEN Chairman Hans van Bochove: “We see significant investment from producers in empowering consumers by contributing financially towards disposal and anti-littering awareness-raising campaigns, and by driving product, material and recycling innovations that support the transition to a circular economy. Legal clarity is essential to underpin these investments, but is lacking in this instance, for example with regard to which packaging falls under the SUP scope and which not. In addition, design requirements with significant impact such as the tethered caps proposal should be based on established facts and a thorough impact assessment.”

Does it go far enough?

And then there are those who, while welcoming the news, feel it needs to be more far-reaching. After all, not all single-use plastic items would fall under the umbrella of the ban. Instead, the consumption of items for which there is as yet no viable alternative would be reduced by EU member states by at least 25 per cent by 2025 under the new rules. This would include mainly food containers, such as burger boxes, or packages for fruits, vegetables and ice-creams.

Some campaigners are also disappointed that the Parliament did not adopt a ban on very light-weight single-use plastic bags supported by the Environment committee. And there have also been reports that major plastics users, such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo and Danone, are lobbying national environment ministers to water down the directive, which is another cause for concern for opponents of SUPs.

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