On 03 July 2021, European Union Member States were expected to have enforced the EU’s 2019 directive on the ban of single-use plastics (SUP). In the 2018 EU plastics strategy, the EU banned the use of 10 of the most common SUPs used and found on European beaches. These included plates, cutlery, straws, drink stirrers, cups and food and drink containers made of polystyrene (including lids), cotton buds and balloon sticks, and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic (widely used in shopping bags). The European Commission’s goals are to reduce the waste found on beaches, inform EU citizens about their plastic consumption thereby reducing their use of plastic items and, in the long term, prevent CO2 emissions of 3.4 million tonnes per year and save consumers €6.5 billion a year for spending less on throwaway items. The EU hopes to achieve this by limiting the production of SUPs and increasing the use of recycled plastics in new products. By 2030, it aims to have 65% of municipal waste recycled, 75% of packaging waste recycled, and a reduction of landfills to a maximum of 10% of municipal waste. While French citizens saw the adoption of gradual phases of the ban, Ireland introduced a national levy that aided in reducing the use of plastic bags by consumers. However, other EU-Member States have struggled to successively implement the EU directive due to the pandemic and its economic repercussions on their citizens and businesses.
France’s ‘Name and Shame’ Strategy
In November 2018, France passed legislation limiting the use and sale of single-use plastics. France introduced gradual phases where the final goal is to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by the state. The ban was written under Article L 541-10-5 of the French environmental code, which prohibited the sale of “disposable plastic cups, glasses and plates for the kitchen, straws, cutlery, steak spikes, disposable glass lids, meal trays, ice cream tubs, salad bowls, boxes and beverage stirring sticks, except those that can be composted at home and are made, in whole or in part, of biobased materials” from January 2020. However, there are exceptions for the public health sector, where disposables are necessary for the protection of healthcare workers and preventing the propagation of viruses. France’s goal by January 2025 is the prohibition of the use of plastic cooking, reheating and serving food containers in the collective catering services of schools and universities. France’s environmental policy is ambitious as it not only aims at reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but also air and water pollution present within its borders.
On 07 June, the Secretary of State of Ecological Transition for France, Brune Poirson, announced that throwing waste on the road, such as a mask or a cigarette butt, may be punished by a fine of 135 euros, an increase from the previous 68 euros littering fine. This decision came after there was public outcry regarding video footage of Covid-19 related litter on the seabed in Antibes, France. Laurent Lombard, co-founder of Opération Mer Prope, Operation Clean Sea, encouraged the public to favour reusable masks to their disposable counterparts as well as soap and warm water to hand sanitiser, as there has been an increase of presence of these SUPs floating in the oceans. Joffrey Peltier, the other co-founder, said that if litter is not properly disposed of in waste bins, it often gets swept up into the gutters and finds its way into the waste waterways and then into rivers or oceans. To discourage this, Barbara Pompili, the French Minister of Ecological Transition, publicly named the 13 fast-food restaurants who had failed at upholding their 2019 commitment to respect the 5 rules of recycling their waste (paper/cardboard, metal, plastic, glass and wood). The results showed that only 3 of the original 16 restaurants had upheld their responsibility of recycling their waste, Cojean with 100%, Burger King with 98.5% and Subway with 91%. Since July 2016, all fast-food restaurants are required by law to recycle the 5 types of waste. Five Guys ranked the lowest with 16% of their waste sorted. On 01 July, the Ministry announced that although the ban on polystyrene kebab boxes was in effect since 01 January, there was a grace period until existing stocks were depleted. France is an example of an EU Member State with the environment as the top priority of its agenda. In comparison to other states, France implemented the phases much earlier to allow for the time needed for the various industries impacted by the changes to adjust and plan for the future.
Europe’s Plastic Waste Generators, Ireland’s Levy and the EU’s Capacity to Recycle
In the figure below, one can see the EU Member States generating the highest and lowest amounts of plastic waste. Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland and France place in the top five of packaging waste generators in the European Union respectively. Germany is Europe’s top packaging waste generator with 230 kilograms per capita. Ireland produced 210 kilograms per capita and France holds the number five spot with 180 kilograms per capita. On the other end of the spectrum, Croatia and Bulgaria generated the least amount of waste 70 kilograms and 72 kilograms per capita respectively. The graph illustrates the recycling capacities of these both European and non-European member states. Malta, Hungary and Iceland are examples of countries that generate more plastic waste than they are able to recycle, struggling to recycle even half of their packaging waste. The European Parliament set a plastic recycling target of 22.5% for EU Member States, EEA and EFTA countries where Malta (11.1 %) and Lichtenstein (21.4%) were unable to attain. The average in the EU was 41.4% and the highest was Lithuania with 69.3%.
Although France has taken to adopting gradual measures to reduce the use and production of SUP, Ireland has taken a different approach to help curb the use of the heavily used SUP, plastic shopping bags. In lieu of implementing a ban on all SUP bags, their efforts focused on a plastic bag levy/tax. In contrast, France began the abolishment of plastic bags in 01 July 2016, with a final enforcement and compliance date in 01 January 2017 of plastic bags less than 50 micrometres thick that are non-compostable. In the early 2000’s the Irish Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government launched a study to determine how to reduce plastic waste. The study found that 328 plastic bags per year per inhabitant were being used before the implementation of the levy. This concerned environmentalists as Ireland’s beaches and fields were being littered with plastic bags, damaging Ireland’s image for tourism and its reputation and its ecosystems and landscapes. In an effort to try and tackle the use of plastic waste and its pollution effects on the environment. In 2002, the Irish government introduced a levy that charged consumers €0.15 per plastic bag and, in 2007, the amount increased to €0.22 and has remained at this amount.The study found that post-implementation of the levy, the number of plastic bags used drastically dropped to 21 plastic bags per year per inhabitant.Within one year of the introduction of the levy, plastic bag consumption fell by 90% and, since 2010, the amount used per year is down to 18 bags per inhabitant. Despite the EU setting a clear directive on the banning of single-use plastic bags, Northern Ireland Environment Minister Edwin Poots expressed his disapproval of business establishments producing thicker and heftier bags that are often not reused and end up in the rubbish bin or producing harmful environmental consequences.
‘Turning the Tide’ in Line for the EU’s Agenda
After examining the phases and initiatives taken by the European Commission, the following question arises, what can be done to shift the way individuals dispose of SUP and, as a result, reuse, reduce and better recycle our waste? Collectively, Europe, including EEA, EFTA and non-Member States need to jointly address the current environmental emergency facing Europe’s borders. The delay of Switzerland in the adoption of SUP restrictions can affect the progress of its neighbouring countries. Although the EU directive has already gone into effect, Balkan Green Energy News finds that only 8 of the 27 Member States have fully complied with the regulation. The 03 July 2021 ban saw many struggling EU Member States experiencing difficulty to not only recover from the pandemic, but also adopt the EU directive into national law. This resulted in Member States adopting either none of the restrictions or a ‘bare minimum’ variation of the directive. Member States such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania would do well to look to the successes of France, Greece and Ireland. Ireland documented the success it has with the implementation of a levy on a commonly used and found SUP in the environment, curbing its use and helping make their citizens conscious of their environmental impact based on their consumption. Meanwhile France took gradual steps to help their citizens and businesses adjust to the upcoming restrictions. The European Parliament must prioritise the restriction of SUP waste by limiting its use and informing the consumers of its effects on the environment in order to prevent it from entering and polluting the ecosystem and to protect our environment.
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Folan, A., Limon, A. R. (2021) ‘Plan on the Ban’: The EU’s Plastic Strategy, IDRN, 09 July. Available at: https://idrn.eu/environment-and-climate-change/plan-on-the-ban-the-eus-plastic-strategy [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].