Europe Votes to Ban Disposable Plastics by 2021

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This is a landmark step in the fight against plastic pollution.

The European Union made history today by voting to ban certain disposable plastics by 2021. The vote, which passed 571-53, will ban the sale of plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks, cotton buds, and expanded polystyrene food containers. It lays out a plan for other disposable items, as well.

Items "for which no alternative exists" must be reduced by at least 25 percent by 2025. These include single-use boxes for burgers and sandwiches, and containers for fruit, vegetables, desserts and ice creams. The recycling rate for plastic beverage bottles is supposed to reach 90 percent by 2025 -- a very ambitious increase, considering that the overall recycling rate for plastics in the U.S. is a paltry 9.4 percent (just for comparison's sake).

Perhaps most importantly, the EU parliament has said that manufacturers of cigarettes and fishing gear need to take greater responsibility for the full life cycle of their products. Cigarette butts are a major source of pollution, the second most littered item on European land. A single cigarette butt can pollute up to 1,000 litres of water and takes twelve years to disintegrate. Manufacturers will be held responsible to "cover the costs of waste collection for those products, including transport, treatment and litter collection."

The same will apply to makers of fishing gear, another leading source of pollution that represents 27 percent of waste found on European beaches. They will "need to contribute to meeting the recycling target." At least 50 percent of lost or abandoned fishing gear containing plastic will need to be collected per year by member states.

Forcing manufacturers to take responsibility for their own products is where the future of circularity lies, far more than incentivizing consumer-driven recycling and biodegradable packaging, so I am glad to see this included in the ban, even if I wish it extended beyond these two industries. (Read: Why recycling won't save the planet)

Also interesting is the EU's decision to ban oxo-degradable plastic bags. This is smart, although some people may be puzzled by it, since these are often touted by the plastics industry as a green solution. That is inaccurate. Jay Sinha and Chantal Plamondon explain why in Life Without Plastic:

"These are traditional fossil fuel-based plastics that have been combined with what are called transition metals -- for example, cobalt, manganese, and iron -- which cause fragmentation of the plastic when triggered by UV radiation of heat... While it might just barely make it into the broad definition of bioplastics because it breaks down faster, it is still toxic, fossil fuel-based plastic."

I don't buy the argument that there are no alternatives for certain items, as quoted in the second paragraph above. One could do a quick search on TreeHugger and come up with lots of ideas for packaging sandwiches, fruit, and vegetables without relying on single-use plastics; but the fact that the EU has even gone this far is impressive. It is a great start. It demonstrates a public willingness to shift gears, driven perhaps by a fear of what will happen if we don't, but if that's what it takes, so be it.

Good job, Europe. Other regions, can you match it... or go further?