The European Union (EU) is playing no games with its waste. All 28 countries within the union agreed Wednesday to phase out single-use items like plastic straws and cutlery, as well as polystyrene drink and food containers, by 2021. The 10 items covered in the ban make up 70 percent of Europe’s marine litter, per the EU.
A couple U.S. cities and even California have taken similar actions, but this is the largest move the world to eliminate single-use plastics the world has seen thus far. Countries like Australia and India have banned plastic bags, but none have yet to outlaw the sale of straws, forks, and knives. Now, we’ve got a whole coalition of nations that’s decided our pollution problem is so dire that drastic action is necessary.
The ban is no surprise—the European Commission announced plans for the move back in May. The ball is just finally rolling! The European Parliament and Council must now approve this measure, and then member states will have two years to fully implement it. This ban should avoid the emission of more than 3 million tons of carbon dioxide and save the union 22 billion euros (25 billion USD) in environmental damage by 2030. Consumers will save money, too: an estimated 6.5 billion euros (7.5 billion USD).
This move will also help stop the destruction of our oceans. All of our five ocean gyres contain garbage patches, areas of concentrated waste with trash spread from the surface all the way to the ocean floor. We’re talking plastic bottles, fishing nets, six-pack rings, plastic bags, and tiny microplastics found everywhere from sea turtle bellies to the Arctic. These plastics are awful for the animals that eat them, and they’re likely not great for people who eat seafood, either.
“When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast,” said EU environmental commissioner Karmenu Vella, in a press release. “We have taken a big stride toward reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean, and ultimately our bodies.”
A huge, $20 million machine developed by The Ocean Cleanup headed toward the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in September, in an attempt to clean up the waste inside the infamous garbage soup spanning an area twice the size of Texas. But the device encountered problems, reports the Associated Press. It’s not holding the plastic it catches, and its developer, 24-year-old Boyan Slat, now says he’s working on a fix.
Maybe that’ll work, but oceanographers and marine biologists have long expressed skepticism about this project. And as this latest European proposal reminds us, we still need to eliminate the waste people create at the source.