Single-use round-up: EU, England, and Germany address disposable plastics

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/Sergi Escribano
©GettyImages/Sergi Escribano

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This week, the European Council adopted new rules banning selected single-use items, England announced plans to outlaw plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and Germany revealed that 5,300 disposable cups are used per minute across the country.

More than eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, and 50% of this is single-use plastic, according to Plastic Oceans UK.

Single-use plastic refers to all products that are wholly or partly made of plastic, and are intended to be used just once before being disposed of.

This week, governments across the EU brought disposable plastics into the spotlight with legislative measures and state-funded studies addressing the single-use plastics problem.

England bans plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds

Following an open consultation, the UK government has decided to ban the distribution and sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England.

The ban responds to overwhelming support to discourage the use of disposable plastics. According to the consultation, 80% of respondents support a ban on the supply of plastic straws, 90% a ban on stirrers, and 89% a ban on cotton buds.

The UK government estimates that annually, England uses:

  • 4.7 billion plastic straws
  • 316 million plastic
  • 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds

The ban will be instated in April 2020, with exemptions for medical and scientific purposes.

In catering and foodservice, restaurants and bars will not be able to display plastic straws, but can provide them on request. The government will carry out a stocktake after one year to assess the impact of these measures.

For Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the ban has been informed by a need to tackle plastic pollution and protect the environment. “These items are often used for just a few minutes but take hundreds of years to break down, ending up in our seas and oceans and harming previous marine life.”

It is estimated there are over 150 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans and every year one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste. A recent report estimates that plastic in the sea is set to treble by 2025”​ – UK Environmental Secretary Michael Gove

Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage has welcomed the government’s decision. “Stopping the production and distribution of these single-use plastic menaces will prevent them from polluting beaches nationwide. It’s a really positive and bold step in the right direction in the battle against plastic pollution.

“It also helps further drive plastic-free options and alternatives for the public so they can truly make more sustainable choices in their daily lives,”​ said CEO Hugo Tagholm.

EU adopts single-use bans to tackle marine litter

The European Council has adopted new rules regarding single-use plastics across the bloc, in an effort to reduce ocean pollution.

The legislation sees selected single-use products made of plastic – for which alternatives exist on the market - banned in all Member States. This


includes cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, and sticks for balloons.

The ban also covers single-use plastic cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic. The Council has also implemented measures to reduce the use of food containers and drink cups made of plastic.

Member States will have approximately two years to instate the legislation into their national law.

A separate plastic collection target was also adopted. The EU aims to collect 90% of all plastic bottles by 2029 – including a milestone target of 77% by 2025 – and will introduce the design requirement to connect caps to bottles.

The Council also requires manufacturers to incorporate 25% of recycled plastic in PET bottles from 2025 and 30% in all plastic bottles as from 2030.

"Plastic straws or forks are little objects but can make great, long-lasting damages​. The single-use plastics legislation will address​ 70% of marine litters items, avoiding environmental damage that would otherwise cost €22 billion by 2030,”​ stated commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, Karmenu Vella.

“The EU has delivered fast and effectively on a proposal the Commission presented just one year ago. All in all, it's European legislation at its best – responding to popular demand, benefiting the planet as well its inhabitants, and genuinely leading the world."

Germany urged to stop the 5,300 cups-per-minute ‘coffee cup flood’

A study revealing that 5,300 disposable cups are used per minute in Germany has prompted a call for governmental action.

The study, which was commissioned by Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency, found that 2.8 billion disposable cups were used for hot drinks in 2106. 3 billion were used for cold beverages.

These figures equate to an annual consumption of 70 disposable cups per capita – 34 for hot drinks, and 36 for cold.

According to not-for-profit environmental and consumer protection association Environmental Action Germany (DUH), just a fraction of these disposable cups is recycled.

Indeed, coffee cups – which typically contain a mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining to retain both heat and liquid – require more complex infrastructure to recycle than either material on its own.


To address this problem, DUH is demanding a levy of 20c be charged on disposable cups and 10c on disposable lids.

The association has also recommended the introduction of a mandatory reduction target of 70% by 2022.

"Every minute, 5,300 disposable cups for coffee, tea and other hot drinks are produced in Germany, resulting in a waste bin of 2.8 billion cups throughout the year, which is a cause for concern because not only are resources wasted…these cups also land very often in the environment, so we need ambitious legal regulations that are much more effective than voluntary agreements with the economy could ever be,” ​said DUH deputy federal managing director Barbara Metz.

“We call for the introduction of a mandatory reduction target of 70% and a levy on disposable cups and lids – self-commitments have so far not solved any environmental problems in the long term.”

DUH is also pushing for more action to favour the use of reusable cups. According to the study, a plastic reusable cup becomes ecologically superior to a disposable after approximately 20 refills. Reusable cups have a lifespan of at least 50 uses within one year.

"As an alternative to disposable cups, consumers can drink their classic coffee locally from a cup, bring their own refillable cup for refilling or enjoy the drink from a returnable cup.

“The easier the cup return, the greater the acceptance by the consumers. A delivery and an ambitious reduction target for disposable cups in particular, would greatly increase the participation of large coffee house chains and canteen operators in pool cup systems,” ​explained DUH head of circular economy, Thomas Fischer.

Related topics Regulation & Safety Sustainability

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