EU Announces New Rules to Reduce Single-Use Plastics

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©. Lorenzo Moscia / Greenpeace – Greenpeace activists have mounted in front of Pantheon, in the centre of Rome, a reproduction of two whales, which arise from a sea full of plastic waste.

The right intentions are there, but the binding targets are not.

Back in October, I reported on the European Union's vote to ban disposable plastics by 2021. Since then there have been intense negotiations that resulted in today's release of new laws outlining how the EU is going to tackle this issue. Most things haven't changed from the original vote and will be familiar to anyone following the story.

There will be bans on single-use plastic items "where alternatives are easily available and affordable." These include plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers, sticks for balloons, products made of oxo-degradable plastic, and food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene.

Extended Producer Responsibility schemes will ensure that manufacturers are forced to take greater responsibility for cleaning up their waste – specifically, plastic cigarette filters, which are the most polluted item in Europe, and fishing gear. There will be a requirement for Member States to monitor collection rates of rogue fishing nets and set national collection targets.

All beverage containers will be required to have 30 percent recycled content by 2030. Recycling collection rates will have to be at 90 percent by 2029, although this has been delayed from the original goal of 2025. (The intermediary target is now 77 percent by 2025.)

These are important steps in the right direction, but Greenpeace and other environmental organizations do not think they go far enough. In a press release, Greenpeace explains where the EU's new laws fall short. For example,

"[There is] no binding EU-wide target to reduce the consumption of food containers and cups, and no obligation for EU countries to adopt targets either; instead, countries must 'significantly reduce' their consumption, leaving it vague and open."

Have we not yet learned that non-binding environmental targets rarely succeed? Another point of contention is "allowing for EU countries to choose to achieve consumption reduction and certain Extended Producer Responsibility measures through voluntary agreements between industry and authorities."

Again, this stuff doesn't happen on its own, and corporate-political relationships are notoriously fraught with corruption. Unless there are clear requirements for what needs to happen, it's unlikely that plastic producers will be volunteering to clean up their acts on any level that makes a real difference. Still, politicians are acting hopeful. (That's their job, right?) Commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, Karmenu Vella said,

"When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast. So I am happy that with the agreement of today between Parliament and Council. We have taken a big stride towards reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean and ultimately our bodies."

I suppose we must celebrate any movement in the right direction. It's a sign that awareness is spreading, and that's the very least we can hope for at this point.