5 single-use plastics the EU should ban | Eco Africa | DW | 24.10.2018
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5 single-use plastics the EU should ban

Balloons, cotton swabs, plastic bags — these are environmentally-damaging products we could live without. But not all of them are on the European Union's list of proposed items to ban. We pick five that should be.

Around the world, awareness of the grave danger plastic waste poses to our planet is growing. Some authorities have already taken steps to cut down on single-use plastics. Among those is the European Union, which in May 2018 proposed new rules that would ban or restrict the use of 10 such items.

Although, the EU's proposals are certainly a step in the right direction, they could also be a tougher – and expanded to include other single-use plastics.

So eco@africa has chosen five products deemed to be among the most unnecessary and most easily replaceable with sustainable alternatives – and which, if they're not already on the EU's potential ban list, certainly should be.

Mass balloon release in Illinois, USA

When released into the air, balloons can travel huge distances, and end up in the stomachs of marine creatures

Releasing balloons en masse

They may come with happy associations of celebrations, but balloons have a terrible impact on the environment. When they end up in the ecosystem, animals mistake the balloons for food, and because it fills up their stomachs, the creatures then starve to death.

Balloons are typically made of latex. Still, despite its natural origin, this doesn't degrade quickly enough to avoid becoming what an animal sees as its next meal. Some balloons are made of plastic. 

Watch video 04:08

The man behind Kenya’s plastic bag ban

Bursting balloons and throwing them in the bin afterwards helps minimize this. The bigger problem is when balloons are released into the air, often en masse. They can travel huge distances and often end up in our oceans.

According to a 2015 paper in journal Marine Policy, experts ranked balloons as one of the biggest threats to marine mammals and sea birds.

In the USA, five states have so far banned mass balloon releases. While, the EU includes balloon sticks on their list of proposed plastics to ban, the balloon itself doesn't make the cut. 

Instead, a labeling requirement has been suggested for balloons that would indicate how they should be disposed of, explain their negative environmental impact and outline the presence of plastics in the product. 

Plastic straws

Lightweight straws can slip out of the recycling process — and into the environment

Plastic straws

These are arguably one of the best examples of unnecessary single-use plastics. Apart from people with certain disabilities, people the world over can easily drink without a straw.

Public pressure over the needless waste generated by plastic straws has reached such a level that companies themselves, including Starbucks, have started phasing them out.

Straws are most commonly made from polypropylene. Although, that can be recycled, straws are so small that they fall off the conveyor belts at recycling plants, and end up being sent to landfills.

A study published in journal Science in 2015 found there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws lying on America's shores alone, where they can harm ocean wildlife.

The European Commission has proposed a ban on plastic straws is pushing for it to be approved by the European Parliament and Council by May 2019.

And for anyone still intent on using straws, bamboo offers a more sustainable alternative. These can be cleaned and re-used and are biodegradable.

Plastic packaging in a supermarket

Public opinion is turning against unnecessary plastic packaging

Plastic packaging

Public awareness of the problems with plastic packaging is growing with regard to everything from throw-away coffee cups to unnecessary wrapping on perishable and non-perishable goods.

As with plastic straws, some companies have bowed to public pressure and are bringing in measures themselves. This includes a number of major supermarkets in the United Kingdowm pledging to eradicate unnecessary single-use plastics by 2025.

Read more: How the UK slowly turned against single-use plastics

Under the 'UK Plastics Pact,' single-use plastics will only be allowed if they are considered vital and made from recyclable materials — meaning items like the plastic trays often used in ready meals would be phased out.

Alternative packaging materials are also being developed. Mycofoam, a compostable alternative to polystyrene derived from fungi, is one example. 

But rather than calling for an outright ban on single-use plastic packaging, the EU's proposal includes expecting member states to reduce use of food containers and cups by ensuring they can't be provided free of charge.

Cottons swabs

Cotton swabs easily end up in the ecosystem but an EU-wide ban is on the cards

Cotton swabs

The light plastic handles of cotton swabs find their way into the environment, traveling through sewage systems and ending up in the stomachs of marine life. But that can be easily avoided by opting for cotton buds with paper stems.

Cotton swab sticks have been earmarked by the EU for a ban, meaning their days could be numbered.

Read more: How hard is living without plastic?

There are other personal hygiene products, such as toothbrushes, which could be phased out in favor of more sustainable alternatives. Bamboo toothbrushes are available, for instance. 

But in other elements of hygiene, extending into the medical realm, single-use plastics do have legitimate applications — think plastic disposable gloves and syringes. Although, glass is seen by some as an alternative for the latter, this brings with it a host of challenges such as ensuring sterilization in places where resources for carrying it out are already limited.

Plastic bag floating in the water

For marine creatures, plastic bags resemble jellyfish. These animals end up starving after filling up on the bags

Plastic bags

Moves to ban, or at least force companies to start charging for single-use plastic bags are spreading. Kenya, for instance, has imposed the world's most drastic bag ban, and imposes hefty fines or jail time for anyone producing, selling or carrying a plastic bag.

Elsewhere, however, such bans have not gone so well, with major retailer Coles in Australia backtracking on making its customers pay for plastic bags after some people started attacking staff.

Plastic bags harm the environment in several ways. For instance, marine animals may mistake them for jellyfish when they are in the water and eat them, clogging up their intestines in the process.

Read more: Britain's marine crime scene investigators

Creatures can get tangled up in the bags, and the bags can also cause flooding by blocking storm drains.

But the EU doesn't have a bag ban in its sights. Instead it's urging producers to raise awareness about them.


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