“In the time it has taken you to read this sentence, more than 1000kg of plastic has been dumped into the sea”.

Faced with the pollution caused by single-use plastics, Europe is proposing a change in the consumption paradigm. The European Commission has put forward a series of measures to reduce the impact of single-use plastics, especially in the sea. It wants to ban the marketing of single-use plastics for which affordable alternatives are available.

The products:

The ban targets 10 different products, which account for 50% of all marine litter. The list includes everyday items such as cotton buds, cigarette filters, straws and food containers (cups, bottles, bags and packaging). The aim is to halve this waste by 2030, preventing ¤230 billion worth of damage to the environment. An ambitious proposal that includes institutional planning to encourage the use of alternative materials.

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, has been very careful: “These products will not disappear, they will just be made from other materials.” Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, adds: “With our plastics strategy, we are laying the foundations for a new, circular, plastics economy, while steering investment in the same direction. This will help us to reduce plastic waste on land, at sea and in the air and offer new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and jobs. This is a great opportunity for European industry to develop its role as a world leader in new technologies and materials”.

Top 10 most common litter on European beaches. Source: European Commission for the Environment

The facts on plastic waste at sea

The figures on plastic waste dumped in the oceans are as revealing as they are worrying:

  • 85%: Fraction of marine litter represented by plastics.
  • 320,000,000 metric tonnes: annual production of plastics in the world.
  • 200kg: amount of plastic entering the oceans per second. 8 million tonnes per year. In the time it has taken you to read this sentence, more than 1000kg of plastic has been dumped into the sea.
  • 50% of these plastics are single-use.
  • Seventy per cent remains on the seabed, 15 per cent in the water column and 15 per cent on the surface. What we see is the tip of the iceberg.
  • If the trend continues, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.
Evolution of world plastic production. Source: Statista, Plastics Europe

The oportunities

The new European plastics strategy, adopted in January 2018, is part of the transition to a more circular economy. In addition to the imperative need for a change in consumption patterns to preserve the environment, the regulation brings with it a number of opportunities, including positioning Europe at the forefront of new materials and manufacturing methods. The promotion of research and development, as well as policies for gradual changes in the consumption habits of Europeans, could lead to the reconversion of the plastic threat towards a favourable situation in terms of job creation, incentives for consumption and research.

Henderson Island beach in the central Pacific Ocean littered with debris from Pacific Garbage Island Photo: Jennifer Lavers (University of Tasmania)

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