Marine litter proposals: the takeaway

In Europe we leave too many of our plastic food containers, drinks bottles and straws on the beach. They pollute the sea, break down into damaging micro-plastics and harm marine life. The EU has acted decisively by publishing a draft Directive to tackle the most common plastic containing items in marine litter. The Commission says that the rules are actually good for industry, allowing ‘European companies to develop economies of scale and be more competitive in the booming global marketplace for sustainable products’. It is surprising therefore that the Directive excludes the new marine biodegradable bioplastics, developed in Europe. 

Plastics have advantages over other materials, which is why they have displaced wood, metal and paper in many applications. Disability campaigners have spoken in favour of plastic straws recently, as they enable many disabled people to drink independently; paper, glass or metal alternatives are not always suitable or safe. Marine biodegradable bioplastics retain many of the attractive properties of conventional plastic whilst decomposing to harmless molecules in the sea. Going back to using wood, paper and metal will impact forests and mining communities.

The new Directive targets the ten most common items found on beaches with a range of measures. The outright ban on plastic cutlery is certainly eye catching; the Commission directs us to use ‘more sustainable alternatives’ instead. Disposable wooden cutlery is the cheapest option but very few suppliers source from sustainably managed forests. Natural polymers, which have not been chemically altered, are also permitted.  But this definition rules out the new generation of marine biodegradable plastics. 

Caps and lids for plastic bottles used for soft drinks will have to be fixed to the bottles so that they can’t become detached and pollute. Again, marine biodegradable bioplastics could be an option. Governments will be required to bring in measures to reduce the consumption of plastic takeaway food packaging, coffee cups, packets and wrappers. So there could be a mandatory charge for plastic takeaway food containers. Aluminium foil or cardboard ones could still be given away for free as they are not covered by the proposals. Takeaway food trays are often too contaminated to recycle so it would make sense to make them from biodegradable plastic. Takeaway coffee will also be affected as the cups have a plastic coating.  Again, a biodegradable plastic lining would offer an alternative. 

The Directive does acknowledge that marine biodegradable plastics could provide a solution in the future but argues that there is no accepted scientific standard on marine biodegradability in Europe. Commercial certifications and test methods do exist. Surely these are a starting point for an agreed European method, which could be developed in time to be included in the Directive? Companies would like to develop and sell biodegradable plastics so regulators should fulfil their promise that this Directive will help industry, and approve the necessary standards without making such a meal of it. 

Published: 21 June 18

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