A Beautiful World®

A Beautiful World: Europe bans single-use plastic

Plastic ocean pollution
Plastic bag and rubbish float in the ocean.
Courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund

In an environmentally historic vote, the European Parliament has moved to ban single-use plastic products across Europe. This ban outlaws plastic bags, straws, plates, cups, drink stirrers and cotton swabs.

Every year, 80 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean — at a rate of a dump truck every minute. A member of the European Parliament from Belgium, Frederique Ries, helped craft the bill and called the EU ban on single-use plastic "a victory for our oceans, for the environment and for future generations."

It was a victory brought about in part by the BBC television program "Blue Planet," hosted by David Attenborough, who says he was overwhelmed by the public's response.

"We hoped that 'Blue Planet II' would open people's eyes to the damage we are doing to the oceans and the creatures that live in them ... I've been absolutely astonished at the result that program has had. I never imagined quite so many of you would be inspired to want change," he said.

The European Parliament voted 571-53 in favor of the single-use plastics ban. The ban is wide-ranging and will have a major impact on consumers and retailers alike. Erin Simon, director of sustainability at the World Wildlife Fund, said the ban is cause for celebration — and caution.

"A rapid pace of innovation and proliferation of plastic has outpaced our ability to manage it," Simon said. "When this plastic ends up in nature, it doesn't break down quickly. It takes hundreds of years. That has really bad impact on those ecosystems and of course the people who depend on those. That's wildlife and humans."

Simon says over 800 species have come into contact with plastic — eating it, getting tangled up in it and having their habitats altered by it. Sometimes it's the whale that washes up on shore with its belly full of plastic, the seal swimming with a packing band around its neck, or the turtle trying to lay eggs in a beach filled with garbage.

"I'm not anti-plastic. It's an extremely low-cost, high-performing and versatile material," Simon said. "So really trying to address the root cause of this problem along with rethinking how we use plastics is going to get us closer to addressing the crisis we're trying to solve for."

Simon cautions that we must be careful about what we use instead of plastic. "If you start replacing plastics with materials that are pulp- and paper-based, for example, you need to be really conscious of the responsible forest management practices that we need to see. Otherwise, we're just sort of shifting around the environmental cost to a part of the ecosystem."

The EU ban aims to eliminate single-use plastics within two years, and Simon hopes it might lead other countries like the United States to follow suit. Until then, she says, everyone can help reduce plastic in oceans by being a "bringer of your own."

"I have my own water bottle I carry with me all the time, my own to-go mug for the coffee I depend on so entirely, and of course carrier bags," she said. "So, there is these simple things you can do, although at times, I'll be honest, as a person who travels a lot, I have to be really conscious about that effort. It's a conscious effort to make sure you always have your reusable item with you."

Bringing your own and choosing products that will decompose in your own lifetime will help not only our oceans but — as Attenborough says — the creatures that live in them.

"I'm a mom, so I want those species to continue to survive for generations," Simon said. "I want my daughter to experience them in the wild, and her children, too. I think we've overstepped and put a lot of pressure on our planet to just continue to give us more, and I think this has been a wake-up call and a moment for us to say, 'Stop this,' before it's irreversible."

10 tips to reduce your plastic footprint

Looking to give up plastic? Here are some tips the World Wide Fund for Nature suggests.

1) Fix your caffeine fix
2) Bring your own bottle
3) Say no to plastic cutlery
4) Straws suck
5) Ditch the cling wrap
6) Say bye to teabags, hello to loose leaf tea
7) Give up gum
8) Glitter, the one member of the party that never leaves!
9) Bring back the milkman
10) Become a wine bottle sommelier

You can find out more about recycling and conservation at the website A Beautiful World.

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