The EU just finalized an agreement to ban tons of single-use plastics

What next?

Multi-colored plastic straws.
Thousands of plastic straws never make it through the recycling stream.Deposit Photos

As Popular Science has reported before, plastic is a big problem: microplastics have shown up in our poop and in Arctic sea ice; as plastics degrade they spill out greenhouse gases; and of course, they hang around forever. Single-use plastics, most of which aren't recycled and have a habit of evading landfills, pose a particularly big problem. But these plastics, which can be found in everything from disposable coffee cups and cutlery to Q-tips, are ubiquitous.

In Brussels on Wednesday, EU leaders signed a provisional agreement to ban 10 major single-use plastic products and mandate cleanup of other items. Although the agreement won’t be formally confirmed by member states until a vote (expected in the spring), it’s still big news.

What did they ban?

"The design of plastic products should always take into account the reusability and recyclability of the product," reads the EU press release associated with the decision. (Until the decision itself is voted on next spring, the text will not be publicly available.)

The agreement would totally ban 10 products:

  • Plastic cutlery, plates, and straws
  • Styrofoam takeout containers, cups, and drink containers
  • Q-tip sticks made out of plastic
  • Items made out of oxo-degradable plastic, which fragments into small parts

The ban would need to be implemented in EU member countries by 2021. "The reduction timelines are very, very short and aggressive," says Tony Walker, a Dalhousie University professor who studies plastic pollution. The EU has been talking about doing this for a while, though, and the agreement isn't yet specific about some of the things it mentions.

What didn't they ban?

Along with the ban on these 10 items, the agreement stipulates that EU members “will take the necessary measures to achieve a measurable quantitative reduction” in the use of other single-use plastics. These include plastic takeout containers that aren’t covered by the above categories, and the ubiquitous plastic coffee cup.

At press time, EU representatives had not responded to a Popular Science request for clarification of what constitutes a "measurable quantitative reduction." Walker says that number should be at least 50 percent.

The other part of the agreement deals with cigarette butts: it says that tobacco filter makers will have to cover the cost of getting the plastic butts out of the environment. “It is great that extended producer responsibility is applied to at least some items,” says Melanie Bergman, a plastic pollution researcher at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute.

But there are other things the EU has the power to ban. Bergmann, who researches the spread of microplastics, notes that an easy potential way to keep these tiny bits of plastic out of the environment doesn’t appear in the agreement. “If fewer plastic items leak into the environment because of the plastic strategy, less microplastic can be generated,” she says. “Still, there are important additional sources, which are not yet targeted. For example, thousands of microplastic fibers which are generated when we wash our clothes, a large proportion of which nowadays contains plastic.”

Some of that microplastic—like the microplastics generated by the wear of car tires and shoe soles, which gets washed down storm drains—is filtered out in the sewage treatment plant, she says. But not all of it: around three percent makes it out into the water. “Three percent can still be a lot,” she says.

Bergmann says that mandating sewage treatment plants use an extra filter to capture this last three percent should be feasible as part of existing EU wastewater treatment agreements, and would make a real difference,

What does this mean?

Even though this is just a start when it comes to tackling plastic, it’s still a big step forward, Walker says. “In terms of purchasing power for the collective EU, it’s absolutely massive,” he says. It’s comparable to North America.

The research he and his grad students have done on plastic bans “has really kind of uncovered a piecemeal approach,” he says. Different counties, cities, and states have banned individual items like plastic bags, but “this is incredibly comprehensive,” he says.

It’s only a matter of time before the conversation about doing total bans of single-use plastic comes to nations large and small around the world, he says. The EU may serve as a test case and set a standard for what such a ban would look like, so it’s important to keep an eye on what happens there as the ban unfolds.

“Maybe we should be asking, why aren’t we doing this in North America?” says Walker.