EU Bans Many Single-Use Plastics, But Will It Work?

The ban includes straws, plates, cutlery.

CARDIFF, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09: Single use plastic bottles seen floating in polluted water near Cardiff Bay in Cardiff, United Kingdom.

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The European Union finally implemented a long-awaited ban on some of the most common single-use plastic items that litter beaches and waterways on July 3. As of Saturday, items including cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks, and polystyrene drink and food vessels should no longer be on sale within the borders of the EU, and other items—such as plastic beverage bottles— will have to contain a significantly larger percentage of recycled content. 

Encouragingly, the law also mandates broader producer responsibility schemes, aiming to make manufacturers pay for clean-up of items such as cigarette filters and fishing gear. And it also establishes a goal of 90% separate collection for plastic bottles (77% by 2025), as well as a requirement that caps be attached to bottles to prevent them from becoming their own source of litter. 

Many environmental groups were quick to celebrate a much-needed win: 

Indeed, given the deep connections between single-use plastics and fracking for natural gas, it’s important to remember that efforts like these aren’t simply about reducing marine litter or saving baby sea turtles—important as those measures are too. They are also, however, a step forward toward a shift away from fossil fuels and toward a lower-carbon future. 

According to the EU, the new ban should directly help avoid emissions to the tune of 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—but that might be just the tip of the iceberg. If the ban can help bring about meaningful reductions in plastic use worldwide, then it would undermine a key strategy that fossil fuel companies are using to sure up their shaky business model. 

That said, the ban is by no means perfect. According to Reuters, there are concerns that implementation of the ban—including transposing it into national law for each member state—varies widely across the bloc. In fact, only eight member states have fully reported to the EU on how they will implement it. Meanwhile, plastics manufacturers and industry groups—perhaps unsurprisingly—are raising concerns too. 

Nevertheless, it does feel like a remarkable sign of the times. Not long ago, we considered it news when a small, forward-thinking chain of coffee shops in my hometown banned single-use coffee cups. Now we are seeing societal-scale attempts to at least try to curb the broader trend of throwaway culture.

Now we just need these laws consistently implemented, expanded, and for other jurisdictions to follow suit.