Europe wants to lead the fight against plastic pollution. On January 18th EU member states confirmed the provisional agreement reached between the presidency of the Council and the European Parliament on a new directive to introduce restrictions on certain single-use plastic products. In 2021 European citizens will say goodbye to plastic cutlery, plastic plates and plastic straws among other products.
The aim of the directive, which is part of the European Plastics Strategy, is to protect the environment and reduce marine litter by avoiding the emission of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2. However, it should be noted the importance of the economic benefits that the new regulation will bring: the directive may avoid environmental damages which would cost the equivalent of €22 billion ($24.9 billion) by 2030 and save consumers a projected €6.5 billion ($7.38 billion). The Spanish Government has already announced its commitment to comply with the upcoming directive.
Marine litter made of plastics
The measures discussed are closely related to the latest estimates on marine litter, according to the European Commission, plastics make up 85% of beach litter, which is causing catastrophic consequences on the environment. The organization WWF has already pointed out the dramatic effects that the excessive use of plastics, poor management of waste and mass tourism are having in the Mediterranean Sea, the most visited sea in Europe.
According to the 2018 WWF report ‘Out of the plastic trap: saving the Mediterranean from plastic pollution,’ large plastic pieces injure, suffocate and often kill marine animals, including protected and endangered species. But it is microplastics that have reached record levels of concentration (1.25 million fragments per km2 in the Mediterranean Sea), threatening many animal species and people by entering the food chain. It is particularly disturbing the case of Spain, which is the second country to pour more plastic into the Mediterranean Sea (only after Turkey) and the fourth country in the EU that consumes more plastic.
“Marine litter is a growing global problem. We have all heard the warning by the World Economic Forum and others that, measured by weight, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050 if we continue dumping plastic in the sea at the present rate. We cannot let this happen. This is why the EU takes action to restrict the use of certain throwaway plastic products for which good plastic-free alternatives exist. And we will make plastic producers pay for cleaning up”, said Elisabeth Köstinger, the Austrian federal minister of sustainability and tourism, when she announced the EU agreement last December.
The end of single-use plastic products
The new rules aim to stop the use of throwaway plastic products and packaging for which alternatives exist and is focused on the most frequently found items polluting European seas: plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons, and chopsticks), plastic plates, plastic straws, cotton bud sticks made of plastic, beverage and food containers made of expanded polystyrene (such as fast food and takeaway boxes), and products made from oxo-degradable plastic, which contributes to microplastic pollution. According to the European Commission, together these products constitute 70% of all marine litter items.
Member states will also have to “achieve a measurable quantitative reduction” on the rest of food containers made of plastic and plastic cups for beverages. There will be a binding target of at least 25% of recycled plastic for PET beverage bottles from 2025 and all plastic bottles will have to respect a target of at least 30% of recycled content. Another purpose, when possible, will be to “give priority to waste prevention or to the transition to reusable products rather than to other single-use alternatives,” and to encourage “the reusability and recyclability” in the design of plastic products.
A smart economic choice
“Single-use plastics are not a smart economic or environmental choice,” said Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, when the Commission launched the proposal. “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,” he explained.
The global production of plastics has not stopped to increase since 1960. According to the European Commission, in 2015 the global production reached 322 million tonnes and it is expected to double over the next 20 years. In Europe, around 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year and less than 30% of such waste is collected for recycling. Therefore, if we want to gain the battle against plastic pollution, it is essential to focus on the plastic production and recycling industry in order to promote the basis for a circular economy.
Spanish road map to comply with the directive
Last September, the Minister for the Ecological Transition of Spain, Teresa Ribera, announced during a control session in Congress that the Government was preparing a road map to reduce the excessive use of plastic, eliminate unnecessary packaging and promote recycled plastic.
Later, when the issue was being discussed in the European Parliament, Ribera stated that protecting biodiversity was a “pending issue” in Spain and confirmed that her the Ministry was working on a circular economy strategy in accordance with the European directive to address plastic pollution and protect biodiversity.
Ribera expects that the upcoming legislation will result in the transformation of the plastic industry and aims to extend the producer responsibility. Even if EU member states have two years to transpose the directive into their legislation (the prohibition of some single-use plastic products has been agreed from 2021), the Spanish Government has already expressed its commitment to pass the necessary laws as soon as possible – “at the beginning of 2019”- in order to comply with the European Plastics Strategy.