By Liz Skolnick
On Wednesday, October 24th, the European Parliament voted in favor of a complete ban on single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery, straws and cotton swab sticks, by the year 2021. The ban covers the 10 plastics most commonly found in the world’s oceans, as well as oxo-degradable plastics (e.g., polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS)) which make up plastic garbage and sandwich bags, and the familiar Styrofoam food take-out containers. The proposed legislation includes reduction targets for Union member states, including a reduction of 25% or greater by 2025 on plastics “for which no alternative can be found,” and measures against cigarette butts (yes, there’s even plastic in these!) and fishing gear. Additionally, 90% of plastic beverage bottles will be required to be recycled. The final decision on the ban will come after deliberations with the European Council of government ministers, and is expected by Dec. 16.
Impetus for this legislation came after findings from European Commission research clarified the scale of current and projected future marine plastic pollution, and the damage it continues to do to European environment and economy. Those findings estimated costs of marine litter to the EU of between $295 million and $793 million per year.
What does this have to do with recycling?
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, reduction is the cousin of recycling, found further up the hierarchy of waste management (remember those 3 R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”?). Reduction is the first defensive measure we can take in the fight against waste. It means preventing waste before it starts, before it ever enters the waste stream and becomes “garbage” we have to make choices about how to dispose of or reuse responsibly. Recycling is one measure we can use to give materials a kind of new life after it has already become waste, however, unlike simply reusing materials — like refilling a glass bottle or reusing a paper bag — recycling involves processing materials and the inevitable energy consumption and addition of new (“virgin”) materials needed to produce a new, high-quality product. Therefore, while recycling is a fantastic and environmentally-friendly alternative to disposal, there’s a reason that reduction and reuse of material is preferred.
Is a similar ban on the horizon in the US?
While federal legislation around single-use plastics is not in the works here in the US, states are taking some initiative to enact similar bans. Here in New York, the topics of banning or taxing plastic bags has been hotly debated in a “two steps forward, one step back” fashion since the early 2000’s. Earlier this year, Cuomo announced a bill to ban the single-use bags by 2019, after rejecting a surcharge on the same in 2017. Parts of Long Island including all of Suffolk County have imposed a fee on plastic bags at retailers including pharmacies, supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores. As of April, 2018 ten cities, towns and villages in New York had put bans into place.
While single-use bans or fees are not widespread across the nation, small pockets of resistance have cropped up in many states. And the recent difficulties with recycling plastics and other materials in the US has given rise to more talk of bans or taxes on problem materials, and of extended producer responsibility (EPR), which would shift the onus for responsible handling of materials to companies that produce them. EPR measures can also spur innovation into development of new, more environmentally-friendly materials, and encourages companies to use those materials that are easier to dispose of or reuse with less harmful consequences.