The European Union (EU) has taken one of the boldest steps in the fight against plastic to date. On Wednesday, legislators voted to ban a wide range of single-use items, including plastic plates, cutlery, and Q-tips, with plans to implement the policy from 2021.
The motion passed with a large margin of 571 to 53 with 34 abstentions.
“We have adopted the most ambitious legislation against single-use plastics,” rapporteur and MEP for Belgium, Frédérique Ries, said in a statement.
"Today’s vote paves the way to a forthcoming and ambitious directive. It is essential in order to protect the marine environment and reduce the costs of environmental damage attributed to plastic pollution in Europe, estimated at €22 billion [$25 billion] by 2030."
The EU has already committed to tackling plastic waste, pledging to make sure every piece of plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2030 earlier this year, while member states have individually taken steps to reduce their own plastic footprint. (See, for example, France's ban on plastic cups, plates, and eating utensils and the UK's decision to get rid of plastic straws, Q-tips, and other single-use items from 2019.) But this might just be the most ambitious target yet.
So, what exactly does the directive cover?
First, the absolute ban of a number of single-use items, which have readily available alternatives made from more eco-friendly materials like paper and cardboard.
This means plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks, and cotton buds would be banned outright in all member countries, starting in 2021. The ban would extend to products made from oxo-degradable plastics (think: bags and packaging) and fast-food containers made with expanded polystyrene.
Single-use plastic items without such a readily available alternative (cup lids, crisp packets, and sanitary products, for example) would still need to be reduced by at least 25 percent by 2025. The directive also requires member countries to make sure at least 90 percent of plastic drinks bottles are being collected and recycled by 2025.
Second, the plastic found in cigarette filters would need to be reduced by 50 percent before 2025 and 80 percent before 2030.
According to the European Union, they are the second most littered single-use plastic product, just behind drinks bottles, caps, and lids. What's more, it only takes one cigarette butt to pollute 500 to 1,000 liters (110-220 gallons) of water and if that cigarette butt is chucked on the street, it can take as long as 12 years to disintegrate.
Third, the directive requires member countries to collect at least 50 percent of plastic-containing fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned every single year, plus make sure that 15 percent or more of it is recycled by 2025.
Tobacco companies and fishing gear producers will be obligated to cover the cost of the waste collection for their respective products.
This is clearly a fantastic achievement but the goals laid out by the EU yesterday are not yet set in stone. First, it will have to be approved and ratified by the member states and, as always, there is a risk that some of the objectives could be watered down.
For the sake of the turtles, let's hope they're not.