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The Seductive power of single use plastics

EU action on plastics

Plastic is light, cheap and useful. But the impacts of plastic waste on the environment and our health are global and can be drastic. Around 80 % of marine litter is composed of plastic, often affecting marine life and birds.

Europeans are concerned. Almost 3 out of 4 say they are worried about the impact of everyday plastic products on their health, according to a Eurobarometer survey. And almost 9 out of 10 are worried about the environmental impacts.

Today, we are using a material designed to last for hundreds of years for products that we sometimes only use for minutes. Urgent change is needed in how we design, produce, use and dispose of plastic products. In response, the EU is playing its part in combatting plastic pollution and marine litter.

EU rules on single-use plastic products, adopted in May 2019, target the 10 plastic items that most often pollute Europe's beaches and seas, along with lost or abandoned fishing gear. This waste accounts for 70 % of marine litter.

The rules ban single-use disposable plastic products for which plastic-free alternatives already exist. Other measures aim to reduce the consumption of the most frequently littered plastic products; to extend the producers’ responsibility; to change the design of some products; and to inform and raise awareness among consumers.

From 2021 a ban will be in place for single-use plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and balloon sticks, as well as food and beverage containers – including cups – made of expanded polystyrene. These items will all have to be made from more sustainable materials or replaced with reusable alternatives. All products made of oxo-degradable plastics will also be banned.

Replacing the most common single-use plastic items with multiple-use or better-designed products can lead to innovative solutions and new business models. For example, reuse programmes can replace many of the single-use plastic products that currently end up in our oceans, and use of alternative materials could reinforce the EU's lead in the bioeconomy.

The rules are expected to:

  • avoid CO2 emissions equivalent to 3.4 million tonnes
  • avoid environmental damage equivalent to EUR 22 billion by 2030
  • save consumers EUR 6.5 billion.

The Directive builds on the successful reduction in consumption of single-use plastic carrier bags brought about by EU law in 2015, and the revised EU waste legislation, which includes ambitious targets for recycling plastic packaging waste. Europe’s 2018 Plastics Strategy for a circular economy sets the path for additional EU actions in line with the 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan.

These actions set the stage for Europe to better use, reuse and recycle plastics as a valuable material.