Europe Declares War on Plastics: Goodbye to Disposability and Hello to More Recycling

No more single-use plastics. That’s the new line from the European Commission, which is proposing bans and limits that will target a wide range of plastic products and hopefully reduce marine pollution and beach litter.

So it will be goodbye to non-biodegradable plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons. All these items will have to be made only using sustainable materials.

Single-use drinks containers made with plastic will only be allowed on the market if their caps and lids remain attached. Member states will be obliged to collect 90% of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example through deposit refund schemes.

Another significant innovation is the introduction of consumption reduction targets. Member states will have to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drinks cups by setting national reduction targets, making alternative products available at the point of sale or ensuring that single-use plastic products cannot be provided free of charge.

Producers will also have obligations. Companies that make food containers, packets and wrappers (such as for crisps and sweets), drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters (such as cigarette butts), wet wipes, balloons and lightweight plastic bags will be asked to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup, as well as awareness-raising measures. The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products.

The requirements for labeling in certain sectors will also change. Sanitary towels, wet wipes and balloons will require a clear and standardized labeling which indicates how waste should be disposed, the negative environmental impact of the product and the presence of plastics in the products.

Fishing gear—which accounts for 27% of all beach litter—is also covered. Producer responsibility schemes will once again be introduced: Producers of plastic fishing gear will be required to cover the costs of waste collection from port reception facilities and its transport and treatment.

A recently released OECD report, “Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics,” confirms the importance of intervention. Only 15% of the all the plastic waste in the world is recycled, while 25% is incinerated and the remaining 60% ends up in landfill, burned outside or dumped into the environment.

Recycling rates of different polymers vary greatly across countries, with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which are mostly used for packaging, being recycled at relatively high rates (19% to 85%, depending on the country), while polypropylene (used in pipes and electrical cables) and polystyrene are much less recycled (1% to 21%).

While just 10% of plastic is recycled in the United States, 30% is recycled in the European Union.

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