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Ban on disposable plastics: sense or nonsense?

Disposable plastic ban Netherlands

Five years after the ban on free plastic bags, the Netherlands is taking a new step in the fight against plastic waste. As of 2021, the Netherlands will also ban disposable plastics such as plastic plates and straws. Will this ban achieve the desired effect or is it time to start innovating the plastic industry?

Woman asks Biden to ban plastic bags in America

While in the EU we made a Plastic Pact with which we are planning to ban single-use plastic products to protect our beaches and oceans from plastic, America is still talking about plastic bags. US President Joe Biden said earlier this year that he wants to phase out all plastic bags in America. At a campaign event in January, a woman from Kenya urged Joe Biden to include a plastic bag ban in his climate change plan. "In Kenya we don't even use plastic bags," the woman said. "It's not allowed because we're trying to clean the ocean." Biden replied, "I agree with you 100%. We shouldn't allow plastic. And what we should do is phase it out." The CEO of the Plastics Industry Association however responded that the ban on plastic bags would be a disaster for the economy and the environment.

Free bags banned in the Netherlands for 5 years

Free plastic bags have been banned in the Netherlands since 2016 with the aim of preventing waste in the sea and on the streets. In the Netherlands we used about 3 billion plastic bags. All these bags eventually end up in the environment. Therefore the European Union has obliged all member states to reduce the use of plastic bags. With the ban on free plastic bags, the Netherlands complied with this European obligation.

Plastic bags for a fee still allowed

The ban on free bags in the Netherlands is not a complete ban though. Dutch shops and supermarkets are no longer allowed to give away free bags, but they can still sell plastic bags for a small fee. There are also a few exceptions to the ban. You are allowed to give plastic bags for free if the bag is thinner than 0.015 millimeters or if the bag protects food or prevents food waste. In the tax-free shops at Schiphol, they can also seal products for free in plastic bags. For the normal plastic bags you pay an extra fee.

What about plastic bag bans in other countries?

It is not so easy to find an overview of the precise legislation of each EU Member State for the ban on plastic bags. According to Statista, one of the world's largest statistics portals, most countries seem to participate, although the approach of every country differs. In the vast majority of countries they work with an extra fee for plastic bags, like the Netherlands. In some countries plastic bags are partially banned and in some countries completely banned, like in France. Although the ban in France applies to certain types of plastic bags, just like in the Netherlands. And internationally? It is true what the Kenyan woman said to Biden. If you look at the map, it is striking that two large countries are not yet participating in the ban on plastic bags: Russia and America. With an exception for the state of New York, which has banned the use of plastic bags since this year.

Plastic waste legislation countries
Legislation in countries in percentages 

Plastic bag ban leads to more awareness

The big question, of course, is whether the plastic bag ban worked. Do we use less plastic bags? In March this year, the Dutch government published the report "Evaluation of the ban on free plastic bags". The conclusions are very positive. The plastic bag ban has led to more awareness among citizens. More than 9 in 10 Dutch people bring their own carrier bag. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of bags decreased by about 80 percent. More good news: plastic litter decreased by about 60 percent since 2015, according to figures from Rijkswaterstaat. A dutch citizen currently uses about 35 plastic bags.

Ban on throwaway plastic in the Netherlands in 2021

Five years after the introduction of the ban on free plastic bags, the Netherlands is taking a new step in the fight against plastic waste. From July 3, 2021, a number of new measures will be implemented. This includes a ban on disposable plastic products, more recycling of plastic products and better information about reusable alternatives to plastic. This has to do with the new legislation that the European parliament introduced. All EU member states must include the new measures in their legislation. In March 2020, 13 countries and 66 companies signed the European Plastics Pact in which they pledge to commit themselves over the next five years to reducing plastic in waste. This legislation is a step towards a future in which all plastic will be recycled and reused.

Less plastic waste in 5 years with stricter policy

The Netherlands will introduce a number of extra measures in order to reduce plastic waste, but not all of them will take effect next year and not all of them are very clear yet. The first measure will take effect in July 2021, and will include a complete ban on plastic plates, plastic cutlery, plastic stirrers and straws. These are the other measures:

  • From 2021, measures to decrease plastic on-the-go packaging, such as drinking cups and food containers
  • From 2024, caps and lids must be attached to plastic bottles and beverage containers so that they are automatically returned for recycling
  • From 2025, PET bottles must consist of at least 25% recycled plastics. In 2030 this must be at least 30%
  • From 2025, at least 77% of all plastic drinking bottles up to 3 liters must be collected. In 2029 this must be at least 90%.
  • Regulations on hygiene products, tobacco products and drinking cups stating which waste bin it belongs to, which plastics are in the product and what consequences this has for the environment
  • Increased responsibility of producers for (litter) waste of some of their products. For example, producers must take care of the collection, transport and processing of plastic products and stimulate consumer awareness
  • Information for consumers about reusable alternatives to plastic products, about waste management options and the impact of plastic on the environment

Plastic tax in Italy for disposable plastic

Some countries have already taken the measures a step further. Italy is mentioned as a forerunner by the Plastic Soup Foundation. The Italian government decided to tax Single Use Plastic (SUP) such as bottles, bags and food containers in 2021. Italian producers will pay 45 cents per kilo of plastic. With this, the Italian government makes one-way plastic more expensive and they hope that the use of this type of plastic will decrease. Recycled plastic is excluded. The (plastic) industry has opposed this measure with the argument that the measure would lead to job losses.

Criticism of the ban on plastic

It all sounds really great. The ban on plastic bags has proven that it can reduce our plastic consumption and raise awareness. Yet there are also critics that question the ban on plastic. Many countries have included exceptions against plastic bags. This way, shops and supermarkets can actually still give away free plastic bags if it protects food or prevents food waste. The Plastic Soup Foundation also warns against tricks from companies to circumvent the ban on plastic plates and cutlery. For example, Supermarket PLUS advertises that its plastic cutlery can be washed at least 100 times and is therefore an environmentally friendly product.

Lack of stimulation for innovation of the plastic industry

The biggest criticism of the ban on plastic is that it only fights the symptoms. Researchers from the World Resources Institute warn that in countries where a ban on (disposable) plastic has been introduced, no measures have been taken against the production of plastic bags. Cape Verde is the only country that, in addition to a ban on the use of free plastic bags, also introduced a ban on production of plastic bags. Entrepreneurs and trade organizations in the Netherlands indicate that there are no good alternatives to plastic and that the ban does not really stimulate innovation. For example, they find it strange that organic plastics are also banned while this is a sustainable alternative.

Circular economy of plastics

Ban disposable plastic drop in the ocean?

What many people don't know is that most plastic waste is already created before it reaches the consumer. In Europe, almost 40 percent of the plastic is used for packaging. This is not only single-use packaging, such as the plastics for cheese or meat, but also the larger packaging used for logistics. Bubble foils are an example of this. This is also why Polimeer uses recycled plastic from plastic foils in their design products. If we want to solve the plastic waste problem, we should look at plastic packaging in the entire logistics process. There are already initiatives such as the Packaging Waste Fund and Rethink Plastics that are committed to recycling packaging materials.

Plastic can be sustainable

It is no wonder that plastic has a bad reputation. It is polluting, we use it in many products and the plastic waste problem is very difficult to solve. Yet a part of the solution is to change this negative view. The way we handle plastic is not good, but the material itself is not that bad. It is a strong material that is durable, flexible and does not oxidize. It is therefore not surprising that we use plastic in so many products and that it is the source of many innovations. In addition, there are also advantages to plastic packaging. Plastic is 3.6 times lighter than other materials, reducing the load on a truck by about 800 kg. This saves up to 2 liters of diesel per 100 km and reduces C02 emissions by 5 kg per 100 km.

From plastic waste to a sustainable raw material

Back to the beginning. Whether Joe Biden is really going to do something about the plastic bags is still the question. For a country of this size, it would be a very good start in the fight against plastic waste. Because that is what ultimately matters. We all want to prevent plastic waste from ending up in the environment where it causes a lot of damage. It means that we should no longer see plastic as a ‘worthless’ waste product, but as a raw material for all the great applications we can use it for. Reducing plastic consumption is one part of the story, but it is even more important to start creating a circular economy for plastic and other raw materials. Circular means that we close the loop. For this we need an extra step after using our products. We need to start thinking about reusing and recycling in the total chain. In this way we ensure that plastic does not end up in the environment and that plastic retains its value.

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