The European Union is keen to lead the world in significantly reducing the immense problem of plastic litter.
The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union have reached a political agreement based on ambitious new measures proposed by the European Commission.
The new measures will target the 10 plastic products most often found on our beaches, as well as abandoned fishing gear.
It is part of the world’s first comprehensive Plastics Strategy adopted earlier this year, to protect citizens and the environment from plastic pollution whilst fostering growth and innovation.
According to a Commission announcement just before Christmas and therefore somewhat overlooked in the international media, “the new rules contribute to a broader effort of turning Europe into a more sustainable, circular economy, reflected in the Circular Economy Action Plan adopted in December 2015.”
Because of the enormity and complexity of the problem, controlling plastic products and waste is going to take time.
The Commission issued its current proposal in May 2018 but it took seven months for the parliament and the council to formally agree on it.
And the agreement is still provisional and not expected to be ratified by the European Parliament for several more months.
Portugal and all the other member states will then have two years to implement the new rules.
These rules are intended to place Europe's businesses and consumers ahead as world leaders in producing and using sustainable alternatives that avoid marine litter and ocean pollution, a problem with global implications.
The European commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, Karmenu Vellaex explained the overall dilemma succinctly by saying: “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.”
First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development, said upon the announcement of the provisional agreement:
“Europeans are conscious that plastic waste is an enormous problem and the EU as a whole has shown true courage in addressing it, making us the global leader in tackling plastic marine litter. Equally important is that with the solutions agreed upon today, we are also driving a new circular business model and showing the way forward to putting our economy on a more sustainable path.”
Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, commented: “Tackling the plastics problem is a must. At the same time it brings new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and job creation.
“We will discuss those thoroughly with industry within the Circular Plastics Alliance. With the agreement reached today we are showing that Europe is doing a smart economic and environmental choice and is advancing towards a new truly circular plastics economy.”
The agreement between the European Parliament and Council has been described as a “big stride towards reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean and ultimately our bodies.”
Different measures will apply to different product categories. Where alternatives are easily available and affordable, single-use plastic products will be banned from the marketplace.
These will include items such as food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons.
For other products the focus will be on limiting their use through a national reduction in consumption; on design and labelling requirements; as well as waste management and clean-up obligations for producers.
More than 80% of marine litter is plastic, according to the European Commission. The products covered by these restrictions constitute 70% of all marine litter items.
Due to its slow rate of decomposition, plastic accumulates in seas, oceans and on beaches in the EU and worldwide. Plastic residue is found in marine species – such as sea turtles, seals, whales and birds – but also in fish and shellfish, and therefore in the human food chain.
© Len Port, 2019
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