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EU plans to ditch throwaway plastics – here’s how we can make it worthwhile

Submitted by on 09 May 2018 – 11:29

New EU laws to reduce throwaway “single-use” plastics, expected by the end of May, can slash pollution and drive exciting new production and consumption systems, writes Meadhbh Bolger, Resource Justice Campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe and member of the Rethink Plastic Alliance

Just half a century after “plastic” appeared on the scene, it is literally smothering our world. Our food and cosmetics are wrapped in plastic, much of our electronics; vehicles, clothes and furniture are made from plastic. Plastics have been found in the deepest oceans, in the air we breathe, in the water we drink.

The environmental and health impacts resulting from the production, consumption and disposal of plastics are becoming ever more evident.Almost half of the plastics we use are for packaging, but most of these are discarded after one short use. (1) We throw away on average more than 52kg of plastic per person per year, most of whichgoes to landfill, incineration or ends up in the environment. (2)

Governments, citizens and businesses worldwide are waking up to the damaging impacts of plastics. In January, the European Commission published an EU Strategy on Plastics, which includes a range of measures to tackle the issue – one of the commitments is to develop legislation on “single-use plastics”, expected by the end of May. (3)

Single-use plastics have to be the first target

Single-use plastics are products made fully or partly from plastic that are designed to be used just one time for a given purpose before disposal. Products range from plastic bottles to food wrapping to nappies to razors. The problem lies in their high pollution rates: single-use plastics are rarely recycled and make up the majority of beach litter worldwide. In coastal EU countries alone, an estimated one hundred thousand tonnes of plastic ends up in the sea every year, harming marine species and leaking microplastics into our food chain. (4)

The visible pollution of these often unnecessary throwaway plastics have driven public outrage – 92% of Europeans agree that “measures should be taken to reduce the use of single-use plastic items”(5) and almost 800,000 citizens signed a petition to call on the EU to “set ambitious goals to reduce the production and use of plastic.”(6) These new laws will be a welcome step.

The legislation will initially focus on the single-use plastic items most found on European beaches i.e. food containers, beverage cups, bottles, straws, cotton buds, cutlery, balloon sticks, sanitary towels, wet wipes, balloons, packets/wrappers, cigarette butts and lightweight carrier bags.

Ban, reduce, redesign and better manage

Many of these items do not need to be made from plastic, reusable alternatives exist for food and drink packaging for example, and others are used unnecessarily.There needs to be an outright ban on certain items, such as plastic straws, cutlery and cotton buds. On the remaining items, it is vital to introduce binding per-item reduction targets. As with the popular and successful EU Directive on plastic bags (2), these reduction targets can be met in a number of ways and member states should be free to choose the measures they prefer.

Measures can range from levies, bans on free distribution and changing design requirements, to strengthening and broadening the scope of already-existing schemes like extended producer responsibility (EPR) and deposit return schemes (DRS).

New EU law needs to tap into its full potential

These new laws will be an opportunity for governments across Europe to take inspiration from the best practices on alternatives to single-use plastics, and to develop policy frameworks that support and mainstream small scale initiatives.

Some examples of what we’ll see more of in the coming years include: package-free shops, which have grown exponentially in recent years, with over 500 shops now in Europe; public drinking water fountains,overcoming the proliferation of single-use water bottles; reusable coffee cups and food containers becoming the norm with systems where standardised cups and containers can be taken and returned to any outlet; reusable sanitary and hygienic items – steel ear picks, washable cloth wipes,reusable sanitary towels and cups.

We see an exciting potential to not only cut pollution but also to create jobs and provide opportunities for thriving resilient local economies, while preserving the natural resources upon which we all depend.

The legislative proposal is expected to be published by the European Commission by the end of May. The European Parliament and member states will negotiate the final legislation by early 2019. There will then be a transposition period of two years into national law. It will be key for Parliament and national capitals to get behind these proposals and make sure the EU comes out with tough laws to cut plastic pollution.

Given the limited initial scope of the legislation, but the proliferation of many single-use and other harmful plastics, Friends of the Earth Europe will be calling for continuous assessments of plastic items of high pollution concern, expanding the scope of the legislation to new items such as nappies, expanded polystyrene and razors. Alongside these specific measures, the Commission must look to establish an overall reduction target for the quantity of plastics consumed.


  1. World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey &Company, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics, 2016
  2. PlasticsEurope, Plastics – The Facts 2017, 2018
  3. European Commission, A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy (COM(2018) 28), 2018
  4. Seas at Risk, Single-use Plastics and the Marine Environment, 2017
  5. European Commission, Flash Eurobarometer 388: Attitudes of Europeans towards waste management and resource efficiency, 2014, p. 47
  6. https://actions.sumofus.org/a/eu-plastic-waste
  7. European Parliament and Council, Amending Directive 94/62/EC as regards reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags (2015/720), 2015