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Environment Europe Pollution Ocean

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Can new EU measures turn the tide on marine pollution?

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Plastic waste brought in with the ocean's tides. REUTERS/Johannes P. Christo/File Photo

The European parliament this week agreed details of a ban on single-use plastics in a bid to cut marine pollution. The EU hopes to complete the final steps to bring the new rules into force in 2021. NGOs welcomed the text but say it does not fully address the urgency of the plastics crisis.


"The way we currently design, produce and consume plastics is both unsustainable and inefficient." says Rethink Plastic, an alliance of leading European NGOs, with thousands of active groups, supporters and citizens in every EU Member State.

"Urgent measures are needed in three key areas: reduction of plastic production and consumption, better design of plastic products to be safe and sustainable, and better management of plastic waste" says the alliance on its website.

Justine Maillot is EU affairs project officer from Surfrider Foundation Europe, based in Brussels, one of the NGOs in the Rethink Plastic alliance.

Founded 25 years ago, the foundation has seen a steady increase in the amount of plastic waste in the ocean.

Maillot says there's approximately 13 million tons of plastic a year, and this is increasing.

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The new EU legislation, Maillot says, is a result of the public push towards more responsible environmental policies.

Consumers are already more aware and are turning to re-usable bags, food containers and drink bottles.

But, she stresses, the onus also lies with the manufacturers of plastic products to propose alternatives.

"Producers need to engage more because they are the ones that have the power of designing their product and they need to make sure their products are re-usable at best, recyclable at least – and toxin-free as well."

The time for transition is now

Only nine percent of the world's plastic is recycled, according to Maillot.

For example, in the UK only one percent of single-use cups, such as coffee cups are recycled.

Although the exterieur of the cup is cardboard, the lining is plastic, and this cannot be recycled, she explains.

One of the final measures adopted includes ensuring manufacturers pay for waste management and clean-up of several single-use plastic items, including cigarette butts and fishing gear.

However, Rethink Plastic says the agreement falls short, because there is no binding EU-wide target to reduce the consumption of food containers and cups, and no obligation for EU countries to adopt targets.

Justine Maillot says another area where the agreement falls short is that due to industry pressure, there is a delay of four years on ensuring 90% of plastic bottles are collected separately, from 2025 to 2029.

Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe on behalf of Rethink Plastic says “Citizens across Europe want to see an end to our throwaway culture and politicians have taken the first step. The time is ripe for Europe to transition away from single-use plastics to reusables.”