Tag Archives: Containers

Europe may soon launch wide-ranging solutions to plastic pollution

Taking on the enormous problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, the European Union is on track to ban single-use items made of plastic, while communities in Washington state slowly adopt bans on plastic bags.

Straws are listed as a problem plastic.
Photo: Horia Varlan, Wikimedia Commons

The European Commission is targeting specific plastic products that constitute 70 percent of the items found among marine debris lost in the sea and along the shoreline. Cotton swabs, plastic cutlery, plates, drinking cups and straws are among the items that would be banned outright, because non-plastic alternatives are available.

The proposal announced this week goes well beyond those items, however, calling for a 90-percent reduction in plastic drink-bottle waste, possibly through a deposit system. In addition, plans are underway for new waste-disposal programs, ongoing cleanups, and educational efforts designed to reduce the purchase of and encourage the proper disposal of food containers, plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons and fishing gear. Manufacturers of plastic products would help fund those various programs, according to the proposal.

See news releases and related documents from the European Commission:

In 2015, the E.U. took action to ban most plastic bags with the E.U. Plastic Bags Directive (PDF 233 kb).

The new legislation, which must be approved by the E.U Parliament and Council, goes far beyond anything being proposed in the United States, but it seems that awareness of the marine debris problem has been growing among Americans.

The June issue of National Geographic magazine is devoted to the marine debris problem in a package of stories called “Planet or Plastic?”

“Nine million tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean each year,” writes National Geographic reporter Laura Parker, who reports that ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Among the losses are 700 different species, including endangered species.

“Some are harmed visibly — strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings,” Parker said. “Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across.

“On Hawaii’s Big Island, on a beach that seemingly should have been pristine — no paved road leads to it — I walked ankle-deep through microplastics,” she said. “They crunched like Rice Krispies under my feet. After that, I could understand why some people see ocean plastic as a looming catastrophe, worth mentioning in the same breath as climate change.”

Unlike climate change, there are no “ocean trash deniers” — at least not so far, Parker notes. “To do something about it, we don’t have to remake our planet’s entire energy system.”

I believe Parker’s story could be eye-opening for many people. National Geographic is certainly concerned about the plastics problem, as the magazine launches a multi-year campaign against plastics starting tomorrow. The magazine will take steps itself, first by eliminating its plastic mailing wrapper. The organization is encouraging everyone to take a pledge to reduce plastic waste. Other organizations leading the charge include the Plastic Pollution Coaliton, which even built a page around the NatGeo information.

While there is no legislation to impose a nationwide ban on plastics, California and Hawaii have statewide bans on plastic grocery bags and are looking at other items. (See Monday’s L.A. Times.) Many local communities across the country have taken various actions. In Washington state, King and Thurston counties have banned plastic bags, and the idea is under consideration throughout Kitsap County, where the city of Bainbridge Island has imposed such a ban.

Kitsap Sun reporter Chris Henry does a nice job outlining the situation in Kitsap, where county leaders would like to see the ban imposed by all city governments at the same time a new county ban goes into effect — perhaps with some action by the end of this year. Port Orchard officials held a town hall forum on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

To learn more about plastic pollution in Puget Sound, check out the slideshows and videos from last year’s Plastics Summit coordinated by Zero Waste Washington.

With regard to the European Union, the proposal is expected to reduce Europe’s littering by more than half for the 10 single-use items targeted by the proposal. The monetary savings in environmental damages is estimated at 22 billion Euros — or about $26 billion in U.S. dollars — by 2030. Consumer savings is estimated at $6.5 billion Euros — or $7.6 billion. Carbon emissions are expected to be reduced by an equivalent 3.4 million tonnes — or 3.7 million U.S. tons — in that time frame. (See news release from the E.U.)

Targeted items are cotton buds (swabs); cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers; sticks for balloons and reduction of balloon waste; food take-out containers; drink cups; beverage bottles; cigarette butts; bags; wrappers for candy, cookies, etc.; and wipes and sanitary products. Fishing gear is on a separate action list.

Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, stressed the importance of European nations working together for solutions, including banning some products, finding new alternatives for others and getting people to properly dispose of plastic to avoid pollution. He wants the E.U. to lead the way in cleaning up the world’s oceans, and he downplayed any inconvenience that people may experience.

“You can still organize a picnic, drink a cocktail and clean your ears, just like before,” he was quoted as saying in a New York Times article. “And you get the added bonus that when you do so, you can have a clear conscience about the environmental impact of your actions.”