Plastic waste and litter are considered some of the most urgent problems faced by humanity and ecosystems.
Images of polluted beaches, turtles, and fish strangled by plastic item—and even a whale with a stomach full of plastic bags—have been bombarding our news and social media channels for years. However, no real impact has been left on people or industries.
That was, of course, until National Geographic’s iconic cover picture showcasing a plastic bag in the shape of an iceberg was published, implying that we had missed the whole picture of the plastic pollution problem. From there, the picture spread fanatically. It was one of the most memorable and impactful messages of all time; for the first time, we felt accountable for this problem which has been ongoing for centuries.
Even though the level of awareness is increasing on an industrial and individual level, surprisingly, we do not see a decrease in the production levels of plastic. In fact, the production of plastic is expected to double over the next 20 years. This indicates higher numbers in plastic waste in the future.
Every year, around 8 million tons of plastics worldwide—and around 150,000 to 500,000 tons of plastic waste from the EU specifically—makes its way to oceans and beaches.
Single-use plastics items are a major source of these plastic leakages. They are among the items most commonly found on beaches and represent an estimated 50 percent of marine litter in the EU.
So, what, you may ask, are governmental entities doing to regulate plastics in light of growing public awareness of the problem?
Regulating Single-use Plastic
To regulate the problem of plastic litter, the EU recently adopted Directive (EU) 2019/904 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment to introduce a set of tailored measures in the aim of:
· Banning the production and the placing on the market of the most harmful single-use plastics which can be affordably replaced on the market, such as plastic cotton buds and sticks for balloons
- Reducing the consumption of plastics for which an alternative is not yet available, such as food containers and beverage cups made of plastic
- Instituting design requirements for beverage bottles manufactured with polyethylene terephthalate that will ensure that the bottles are composed of at least 25 percent recycled plastic by 2025 and 30 percent recycled plastic by 2030
- Requiring that single-use plastic products that have caps or lids are only placed on the market if the cap/lid remains attached to the container during the product’s usage
- Introducing extended producer responsibility schemes covering the cost of cleaning -up litter, similar to what applies to products such as tobacco filters and fishing gear
Member States have until July 3, 2021 to transpose the Directive into their national legislation.
Regulating Plastic bags
Within the category of single-use plastics, the plastic bag dilemma is one of the most prevalent and public facing.
In Europe, 44 countries adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags. Many other countries worldwide already took notice of this issue and began to enact total or partial bans on the use, manufacture, import and export of plastic bags.
Impact on industry
With this growing interest in curbing plastic waste and litter, industries are particularly encouraged to adopt preventive and adaptive measures such as:
- The promotion of existing alternatives to single-use plastic items (e.g. in catering and take-aways), where there are options that are more environmentally beneficial
- The pursuit of voluntary commitments in support of the recycling of plastic packaging and waste
Moreover, with regards to the uptake on the circularity of products, industries are encouraged to take concrete steps to improve dialogue and cooperation on material and product design aspects.
Finally, industries should be prepared to enhance their producer responsibility schemes depending on the category of plastics by:
- Internalizing the costs related to waste collection in addition to transport, treatment and marine litter clean-up costs
- Designing suitable products that are technically durable
- Ensuring the appropriate labels are correctly affixed
Whether on the beach or in the sea, plastics are harmful to the environment and human health. The measures that are being taken globally and regionally are helping to address the problem.
There remain many shortcomings to be addressed, such as the presence of microplastics in products that we use and consume on a daily basis. However, we can see that initiatives are taking place globally and that Europe has begun to play a role as a frontrunner in the global fight against plastic pollution.
 Joint Research Centre, European Commission (2017)