In October 2018, the UK dictionary compiler Collins chose ‘single-use’ as its word of the year from a corpus of over 4.5 billion words.1 Public recognition of the global problem of single-use plastics has been raised by programs such as the BBC’s Blue Plant II, which featured images of an albatross unwittingly feeding its young discarded plastics and a whale mother nursing its dead calf that had been poisoned by plastic. This program and its message have been seen by millions of people all around the world. In China it is estimated at least 80 million people downloaded the program, enough to cause a slowing down of their internet service.2
In 2017, global production of plastic was estimated at 348 million tonnes, with the European Union (EU) contributing about 64.4 million tonnes, up 3.4% on 2016. Plastic’s high functionality and relative cheapness make it the ideal material for a wide range of products and it has become ubiquitous in our daily lives. Many items we readily discard are made from plastics only intended for single-use. Within the EU it has been estimated that 80-85% of all marine litter is made from plastic, with over 50% of that being single-use plastic.3
Until programs such as Blue Planet II began to show the full impact of plastic on our marine environment, this problem was often hidden from view. Marine litter is, however, a transboundary problem, which makes it a global problem. It is a collective necessity that ways are found to conserve our seas and only exploit them in sustainable ways – Goal 14 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.4
It is clear consumers are starting to wake up to the potentially devastating effects of plastic and companies are beginning to take note.5 Being a global problem, however, means a solution also requires government action, and that is also starting to happen.
Governments Take Action
In October 2018, the European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastics. It is expected that these measures will come into effect in 2021.6 The initiative, proposed by MEP Frédérique Ries, received overwhelming support in the European Parliament – 571 to 53. The plan calls for the banning of single-use plastic items by 2021, where an alternative already exists, for example plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds. Single-use plastic items where not alternative currently exists must have their consumption reduced by 25% in Member States by 2025. In addition, the amount of plastic used in cigarette filters must be halved by 2025, with a total reduction of 80% by 2030.7
Europe is not alone. In South Korea, the Ministry of Environment announced an initiative on September 4, 2018, to reduce waste from stores to zero percent by 2027. The government is encouraging companies and individuals to engage in what it calls ‘precycling’ – the decision to not use wasteful products such as plastic straws and single-use cups. Various corporations, including major international coffee chains, are already trialing initiatives to reduce waste off the back of this initiative.8
Unsurprisingly, island nations and those that rely on the sea are some of the most proactive in regulating the use of single-use plastics. For example, Vanuatu announced a ban on plastic bags and bottles in July 20189, and the Republic of Seychelles introduced a ban on polystyrene boxes, plastic bags and utensils in 201710, with a further ban on plastic straws expected to come into effect on January 1, 2019.11
Around the world, bans on single-use plastics are becoming increasingly common. Taiwan12, Malaysia13, Kenya, France and Seattle14, are among several countries, cities and states to have introduced bans on plastics. In addition, several countries, including Japan, are currently considering introducing bans.15
Representative of many of the countries seeking to ban plastics, France introduced a law forbidding disposable plastic tableware, such as plates, cups and glasses, in 2016.16 It did, however, allow compostable dishes that contained bio-based materials – from January 2020, at least 50% must be bio-based, rising to 60% from January 2025. As in the Republic of Seychelle and many other countries, France has not finished regulating the use of single-use plastics. In October 2018, the French general Assembly introduced a further prohibition on use of plastic articles such as straws, coffee stirrers, plastic cup covers, etc.
Measures to combat single-use plastic are relatively recent. Stakeholders need to be alert of governmental changes that are occurring all the time.
Food Contact Materials
Food contact materials are one of the primary sources of marine litter. It is estimated a Styrofoam cup will take 50 years to break-down, a plastic bottle 450 years, and a plastic beverage holder about 400 years. Even if they break-down quicker than this, research has shown that they are leaching toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A into the sea, and thereby harming marine life.17
The scale of the problem may seem massive – it is estimated in the US uses 500 million plastic straws a day18 – but in many cases alternatives already exist. For example, edible chopsticks have been introduced in China and Japan.19
Economic operators need to be proactive in finding alternative materials for their products. With consumer awareness of the global problem of single-use plastics now on the increase, and authorities beginning to introduce restrictions on their use, it makes sense to find alternative materials that will allow them to exploit new markets.
SGS’s has extensive experience of testing materials and articles in contact with food. Our experts can ensure your products meet appropriate regulations for food contact materials and help you find suitable alternatives to single-use plastics. Learn more about SGS’s Food Contact Materials Services.
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1 'Single-use' named 2018 word of the year
2 Sir David Attenborough 'becomes most viewed creature on Earth' as Blue Planet II becomes such a big hit in China it even slows country's Internet
3 Report on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment
4 Sustainable Development Goal 14
5 Starbucks to ditch single-use plastic straws by 2020
6 Single-use plastics ban approved by European Parliament
7 Plastic Oceans: MEPs back EU b an on throwaway plastics by 2021
8 South Korea pushes to reduce disposable items, with Starbucks reducing plastic straws and cup use
9 Vanuatu to ban plastic bags and bottles
10 Seychelles Bans Certain Plastic Products and Requires Biodegradable Forms to Meet Prescribed Standards
11 Seychelles Proposes a Ban on Plastic Straws
12 Taiwan to ban disposable plastic items by 2030
13 Malaysia to ban single-use plastic
14 16 Times Countries and Cities Have Banned Single-Use Plastics
15 Japan considers single-use plastic reduction goals
16 Décret n° 2016-1170 du 30 août 2016 relatif aux modalités de mise en œuvre de la limitation des gobelets, verres et assiettes jetables en matière plastique
17 Plastic Breaks Down in Ocean, After All — And Fast
18 Be Straw Free Campaign: Frequently Asked Questions
19 Japan’s new edible chopsticks have a special flavor, but don’t taste like “food”