European Plastics Ban Takes Aim at Straw Man

Plastic straws face another setback with a proposal for a continent-wide ban.



Brussels has moved on straws. On Monday the European Commission—the bureaucratic and executive arm of the European Union—proposed banning single-use straws, plates, cutlery, and cotton swabs.

The new rules would also require new labels for sanitary wipes and balloons, explaining proper disposal techniques. Makers of plastic food containers and cups would have to pay impact fees to help clean up their products. So will the makers of fishing gear (which makes up 27 percent of Europe's beach litter).

Everything not specifically banned—including bags, balloons, and cigarette filters—will be subjected to "awareness raising measures."

"This Commission promised to be big on the big issues and leave the rest to Member States," Frans Timmerman, the commission's vice president for sustainable development, said in a press release. "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."

The straw ban will now be considered by the European Parliament and its Council of Ministers.

Most straw bans lean heavily on environmental justifications, and the E.U.'s is no exception, arguing that its new raft of anti-plastic measures will reduce marine litter to half of current levels while preventing 2.6 million tons of CO2 from being emitted by 2030.

The commission also claims that bans, restrictions, and taxes on certain plastic items will be great for the economy and for everyday consumers.

"Tackling marine litter creates economic opportunities," a commission white paper confidently declares. Banning some plastic products, it argues, will require producers to make new, better products that will in turn "create jobs as well as strengthen technical and scientific skills and industry competitiveness." Consumers will save €3.5 billion, claims the commission.

Needless to say, companies make and consumers use the existing crop of plastic products because they satisfy a need at the right price. Cheap and available plastic straws allow Europeans to drink beverages on the go, while plastic cotton swabs help them get gunk out of their ears in their free time. Neither benefit is life-changing, but they're benefits nonetheless. If these items are banned, consumers will have to splurge on more expensive versions of the products or else go without them completely. That's hardly a benefit for consumers.

The environmental benefits are questionable too. Plastic pollution is a global problem—and when you consider it on a global scale, the case for European restrictions becomes pretty thin.

A 2015 study on plastic marine waste found that most of it comes from populous coastal Asian countries such as China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which have become rich enough to start consuming a lot of plastic but not rich enough give their waste collection systems the upgrade they need.

China alone accounts for 28 percent of annual marine plastic waste. Indonesia is another 10 percent.

Rich countries, despite being heavy plastic users, contribute relatively little plastic waste to our oceans mostly because we do a good job of disposing of the plastic that we do use. The U.S. and the coastal countries of the E.U. combined are responsible for less than 3 percent of all plastic waste.

Some experts on plastic pollution have thus acknowledged that bans on consumable plastics in rich countries won't make much of a difference.

"Let's say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe," Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineer at Michigan State, tells National Geographic. "You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans."

Such arguments have proven impotent in stopping the rapid spread of plastic straw bans. Just a year ago, only a few coastal California cities had either banned straws outright or restricted them with straw-on-request laws (which require the customer to ask for a straw before receiving one). Now, thanks in part to innumerable activist campaigns, some celebrity endorsements, and a viral video featuring a turtle, banning straws is a hip cause. Seattle implemented a straw ban in September 2017. Its northern neighbor Vancouver followed earlier this month. Both New York City and San Francisco are considering straw bans, as is the United Kingdom.

The U.K.'s environment minister, Michael Gove, even argued for Brexit on the grounds that a strengthened national government would be able to ban straws more quickly. Conversely, the E.U. is arguing that the plastic straw menace is the kind of problem that continent-wide government was built to handle.

"Given the propensity of litter to be carried by wind, currents and tide," reads the E.U. Commission report, "the problem of plastic pollution and marine litter is transboundary in nature and therefore cannot be tackled in isolation by Member States."

Whether the officials behind it are local, national, or supranational, a straw ban may soon be coming to a jurisdiction near you.