Restricting Single-Use Plastics

Article written by Neil Portelli, Director EU Policy and Legislation, MEUSAC
Published in The Malta Independent – 07.12.2020

Plastics have dominated our lives for more than a century. From food packaging, to plumbing materials, children’s toys and automobiles, plastics have been used in a wide range of everyday products. In our economy, plastics are an important material and in modern day life, it is almost unthinkable to consider a life without plastic use.

Over the last 50 years, production of plastics on a global scale has increased drastically. In 1964, 15 million tonnes of plastic was produced. In 2014, that astronomical figure went up to 311 million tonnes. Projections for the next 20 years are alarming as it is calculated that unless the trend is changed, the amount of plastic production will double again.

Notwithstanding its importance in our everyday lives, plastic production carries with it significant risks as plastic production generates plastic pollution. In Europe alone, 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated annually and alarmingly enough, less than 30% of it is collected and/or recycled.  The environmental impact of plastic litter alone, especially plastic which is produced for single-use, is growing year on year. According to recent studies, 85% of marine litter comes from plastics alone – a frightening figure indeed.

The European Union has in the past years fully acknowledged the overwhelmingly negative concerns related to plastic litter and has in 2019 given the green light to a pioneer legislation aimed at combating single-use plastics and the negative impact they carry with them. The Single-Use Plastics Directive, which will come into force in 2021 aims to prevent and tackle marine litter by slowly phasing out unnecessary use of single-use plastics. The legislation in itself is a first step in the European Union’s plans to drive and push Member States, businesses and society in general towards a cleaner, more environmentally sound future.

The Directive, has created a frenzy within the entire plastic industry and caused large scale organisations to re-consider their modus operandi. However, the Single-Use Plastics Directive establishes different measures which are to be taken into account, according to the category of plastic used.

The ‘strongest’ restriction is the ban on single-use plastic products for which a suitable alternative already exists. These products include but are not limited to, plastic cutlery, straws and cotton buds. Member States across the European Union are bound to ban all these products by July 2021. On the other hand, when it comes to products which have less widely available alternatives, such as food containers and cups for beverages such as coffee, the Directive established that their use needs to start being limited down gradually and that alternatives are to be considered.

Other single-use plastics such as tobacco products and sanitary towels also fall under this Directive. Whilst the European Union acknowledges that such products cannot be removed and/or banned from production, it does, through the Directive, impose the obligation to have to cover at least the costs of awareness raising measures amongst other measures.

Locally, Malta is also developing a Single-Use Plastic Products Strategy for the coming 10 years. The strategy is intended to help with the much-needed transition to reduce single-use plastics product consumption and increase the quality (and quantities) of plastic waste that is ultimately collected for recycling. The strategy in Malta can be considered as being holistic in the sense that the framework should act as a driver that brings about an overdue culture shift across the population.

The European Union has once more initiated a very important change which should ultimately benefit everyone. It has taken the lead in the fight against plastic pollution and has called on its Member States to follow suit. Moving towards a cleaner, more sustainable future, however, is a responsibility that is to be shared by everyone.

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