European Commission Targets Plastic Pollution and Ghost Gear

plastic bottles beach

The European Commission has announced a new legal proposal to combat plastic pollution, including measures to cut single-use plastics and reduce the increasingly visible problem of 'ghost gear'.

Currently, around 80 per cent of all marine litter is made from plastic, and almost one-third of it is abandoned, lost or disposed of 'ghost' fishing equipment. The report states that 27 per cent of all plastic waste found in European waters is ghost fishing gear (11,000 tonnes). Globally that would add up to 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear present in the oceans worldwide.

The new proposals follow on the heels of a number of high profile campaigns about plastic pollution, especially as highlighted by last year's Blue Planet II documentary series from the BBC, where Sir David Attenborough address the problem directly. As a result of these campagins, a range of both legal and voluntary initiatives to cut single-use plastic have seen some success, along with an increased profile for volunteer organisations such as the Global Ghost Gear Initiative and Ghost Fishing in the UK.

The UK's 2014 plastic bag charge has reduced consumption by almost 80 per cent and a recent ban on the use of microplastics has come into effect, however, a recent report suggests that the amount of overall plastic pollution has remained the same.

bottle recycle

Plastic bottle recycling schemes in Australia (pictured) could be heading to Europe

The new EU proposals aim to focus on reducing littering and production of the top 10 single-use-plastics by over 50 per cent by the year 2050. This will include an outright ban on certain products such as plastic cotton buds, cutlery and straws, and new initiatives to raise awareness of the problems caused by, and encourage better collection, disposal and recycling of, plastic bottles, bags and food containers.

In most cases, the legislation will place the financial burden for awareness, collection and recycling schemes directly onto the producers. A summary of the highlights includes:

  • Plastic ban of certain products: Plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and balloon sticks will all have to be made exclusively from more sustainable materials instead. Single-use drinks containers made with plastic will only be allowed on the market if their caps and lids remain attached;
  • Consumption reduction targets: Member States will have to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drinks cups. They can do so by setting national reduction targets, making alternative products available at the point of sale, or ensuring that single-use plastic products cannot be provided free of charge;
  • Obligations for producers: Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers, drinks containers and cups, cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags. The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products;
  • Collection targets: Member States will be obliged to collect 90 per cent of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example through deposit refund schemes;
  • Labelling Requirements: Certain products will require a clear and standardised labelling which indicates how waste should be disposed, the negative environmental impact of the product, and the presence of plastics in the products. This will apply to sanitary towels, wet wipes and balloons;
  • Awareness-raising measures: Member States will be obliged to raise consumers' awareness about the negative impact of littering of single-use plastics and fishing gear as well as about the available re-use systems and waste management options for all these products. 

ghost net 1000

Ghost gear continues fishing long after is has been abandoned (Photo: Rich Carey.Shutterstock)

With regards to ghost fishing gear, EU regulations already mandate that fishermen should collect and return this to port for disposal, however, the fees for collection of such equipment have created a disincentive for doing so by placing a financial burden directly onto the fishing industry. The new EU proposal will introduce an 'Extended Producer Responsibility' (EPR) scheme for fishing gear containing plastic. This means that the manufacturers of the equipment that has been recovered will pay or its removal, and not the fishermen or local ports.

First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development said: 'This Commission promised to be big on the big issues and leave the rest to Member States. Plastic waste is undeniably a big issue and Europeans need to act together to tackle this problem, because plastic waste ends up in our air, our soil, our oceans, and in our food. Today's proposals will reduce single-use plastics on our supermarket shelves through a range of measures. We will ban some of these items, and substitute them with cleaner alternatives so people can still use their favourite products.'

The Commission's proposals will now go before the European Parliament and Council and member states are being asked to treat it as a 'priority', asking for 'tangible results' to be delivered before the next round of EU elections in May 2019.





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