EU to completely ban single-use plastics by 2021

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The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly for a total ban on most single-use plastics across the EU as part of its efforts to curb the effects of pollution in the world’s oceans.

The landmark move, which was backed by MEPs 571-53, will see items such as plastic cups, plates and cutlery, cotton buds, straws, drinks stirrers, balloon sticks and more by 2021. The bill also proposes a reduction in single-use plastic food and drinks containers “where no alternative exists” – the items will have to be reduced by 25% in each country by 2025; examples given include sandwich and burger boxes.

Amendments to combat cigarette filters and plastic drinks bottles were also included in the bill, with tobacco firms needing to reduce the plastic used by 80% by 2030. The new bill aims for 90% of all plastic drinks bottles to be recycled by 2025 – currently these items (and their lids) make up circa 20% of all sea plastic. Manufacturers will now also have to take more responsibility for what happens to plastic and packaging waste.

One MEP said during discussion of the bill that “by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans”. The EU’s report into the matter found that approximately 150,000 tonnes of plastic are discarded in Europe’s waters every year, although this is a small amount of the global total (estimated to be eight million tonnes).

The effects of plastics in the oceans are profound. Sea life can ingest the items, or be caught in them, leading to injury or death, and when the plastic debris breaks down into smaller pieces (through wear and tear, not degradation – that process takes centuries) these can then become embedded in the food chain through fishing stocks.

The EU’s ban was initially proposed in May after a leap in public support following a number of high-profile campaigns and nature programmes, such as Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series for the BBC. Although MEPs have now backed it in a vote, a number of procedures still need to take place before it is legally binding; the bill is widely expected to reach this stage without much trouble.

The UK, which has voted to leave the EU by March 2019, will have to incorporate this new law into its national system if the ban becomes a full directive prior to the departure from the bloc.