Plastic plays a significant role in our lives; it is involved in almost all aspects of our day to day activities, from our food, to our transport, to our clothing. However, plastic is often carelessly discarded into the environment where it can take decades to decompose and can release toxic substances into our surroundings. Beaches all across Europe are suffering from plastic pollution that is contaminating coastal waters and littering shorelines.
Data collected by the countries of the European Union to establish a lower limit for permissible litter concentration settled on 20 litter items per 100m of coastline, a value that was determined to be low enough to protect beaches from both environmental degradation and socio-economic harm. As of 2015-2016, the average quantity of litter on European beaches was 150 litter items per 100m, with beaches along the Mediterranean Sea averaging 274 items per 100m.
Currently, 85% of Europe’s beaches have 20 or more plastic litter items every 100 meters of coastline, exceeding the threshold and demonstrating the significant extent of the plastic problem across Europe. 150,000 to 500,000 tonnes of litter end up in coastal ecosystems across Europe every year, 70% of which are single-use plastics- plastics that are only used once or used for a short period of time before being thrown away or recycled, such as straws, plastic bags and water bottles.
The European Parliament has recently focused on plastic production and waste as a critical issue. Luica Vuolo, a Member of the European Parliament, stated, “We can’t manufacture things without thinking about its effects. Rather, we must consider the consequences and rework the product. A classic example are straws, which have always been made of plastic, but we’ve now decided that they can be made from paper, glass, bamboo and metal.” The EU’s Directive on single-use plastics focuses on 10 items of significance that are commonly found as litter to reduce and prevent the negative impact these products have on the environment and human health.
As part of this directive, the EU will establish a ban on single use plastic starting July 3 and encourage consumers to use sustainable alternatives that are easily available. These products include straws, q tips, cutlery, plates, stirrers, balloon sticks and cups made from expanded polystyrene. This ban aims to promote the transition to a circular economy, where production is sustainable. This transition is also part of a larger plan to help cut the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the ban does not include plastic bottles, the EU has mandated that plastic bottles have to be produced with 25% recycled materials by 2025, and with 30% recycled materials by 2030.
Italy, in particular, has opposed the EU single-use plastic ban. Italian industries are at the forefront of Europe’s biodegradable bioplastic sector, industries that some believe will be damaged by the ban. Italy’s Minister for Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani, said, “Europe has given a very strange definition of plastic, [including] only recyclable plastic. All others, even if they’re biodegradable or they are additive of something, they are not good. Our scientific community has a worldwide leadership on the development of biodegradable materials, but at the moment they are not usable by industry, because there is a new and absurd European directive.”
Italian plastic producers fear this ban will only push back on the biodegradable plastics sector since the ban will not allow the industries to use it to make single-use plastic, despite the EU contributing significant funding for projects to create more environmentally friendly plastic.This ban is only the first step in Europe’s long journey to tackle the problem of plastic, which has only been intensified through the coronavirus pandemic. The adoption of single-use masks, gloves and bags to protect people from the virus, as well as the increase in online shopping orders where products are often wrapped up in plastic packaging, has led to a major influx of plastic pollution.
Since the start of the pandemic, 1.6 million tonnes of plastic waste was being produced globally per day and 3.4 billion face masks and shields were being discarded per day. Although this ban is a huge leap forward in reducing plastic waste and developing more sustainable alternatives, the world still has a long way to go to protect our environment and limit the impact of plastic pollution, and the European Union is set on leading the way.