Examples of everyday plastic waste in our lives including disposable coffee cups and food packaging

How we fought for new EU rules to stop plastic pollution

Meadhbh Bolger from Friends of the Earth Europe played a key role in pushing for new EU legislation on single-use plastics. She tells Celeste Hicks about the new law.
  Published:  23 Apr 2019    |      3 minute read
Meadhbh Bolger, plastics campaigner Friends of the Earth Europe
Meadhbh Bolger, plastics campaigner Friends of the Earth Europe
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

CH: Tell us about the new legislation

MB: "The new single-use plastics directive was agreed on by the European Union in December 2018, and will enter into force in every EU country by mid-2021. 

"The directive aims to tackle plastic pollution at source and targets the  top 13 products most commonly found on beaches in Europe. These include plates, cutlery, expanded polystyrene food containers, cups, straws and cotton buds. These 7 products will all be banned.

"But there are other important measures.

"The law also provides that manufacturers pay for waste management and clean up of single-use plastic items, including cigarette butts and fishing gear. It requires 90% of plastic bottles are collected for recycling by 2029.

CH: What role did you and Friends of the Earth Europe play?

MB: "We started a huge campaign push on plastic in 2017, as part of the Rethink Plastic alliance of leading European NGOs. This involved every campaign tactic imaginable.

"We met members of the European Parliament, did awareness-raising work in the media and held a number of events. We sourced a giant model of a dragon spewing plastic out of its mouth, and parked it outside the European Council building in Brussels. 

Plastic-spewing dragon in Brussels
Plastic-spewing dragon in Brussels
Credit: Break Free from Plastic/Rethink Plastic

"It was a lot about co-operation with other movements across Europe. We were able to bring 6 national Friends of the Earth groups (Spain, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria and Germany) to Brussels for a week. They met parliamentarians to discuss their concerns. 

CH: How easy was it to campaign on plastic?

MB: "In the early days we never imagined such a comprehensive law happening so quickly. The language of the European Union has always been about jobs and growth, we couldn't believe arguing that reducing consumption and production would be taken seriously.

"But I think we just hit a really significant moment, when public pressure was growing to tackle plastic waste. We found during our meetings with officials that they were already well-briefed on the issue, and were looking for solutions. 

"I think that's why we were able to push this through in a relatively short time period.

"I've never seen a campaign like this in terms of the scale of engagement. So many of our national Friends of the Earth groups wanted to campaign on this.

Frans Timmermans (2nd left) with Rethink Plastic activists
Frans Timmermans (2nd left) with Rethink Plastic activists
Credit: Rethink Plastic

CH: Are there enforceable targets in this legislation?

"The bans are on several plastic products being brought into the European market and will be enforced by national governments. They will be penalised by the EU if found to keep placing these products on the market.

"One big problem in the development of these new laws is that the production and consumption of these plastic products has not been monitored properly. The industry did not disclose production data, so no-one really knows how much is being produced. That's why it hasn't yet been possible to set concrete consumption reduction  targets yet.

"However the EU statistics agency Eurostat will now have to start monitoring how much plastic is coming in. Member states will also have the right to set their own reduction targets for certain single-use plastic products, so we're hoping that this will happen. 

Towards a plastic-free future

CH: Do you think it will make a difference?

MB: "Absolutely. We're so happy that this directive exists. It's almost the best outcome we could have hoped for.

"It sends a very clear message that we have to completely re-think our throwaway culture. We need to re-think plastic waste

"We think it will become even stronger as the targets for consumption reduction are set. There will be another opportunity to review the directive, and perhaps even make it stronger, in 2027.

CH: What was your favourite campaign moment?

MB: "I really enjoyed our 'museum of single-use plastics' stunt. The idea was to imagine how people in the future would feel about the enormous range of disposable plastic items available to consumers today.

"Emma Priestland, now Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland's plastic campaigner, got dressed up as the museum's curator, and took journalists on a tour. 

"People found this a really interesting way of looking at the issue.

Read Emma's diary about plastic waste in Indonesia.

CH: Will the UK have to adopt this legislation after Brexit?

MB: "At the moment we're not sure. We were hoping that it would be written into the official journal before the UK leaves the EU. However there have been some delays in officially publishing it.

"It would be a real shame if the UK does not have to implement these new rules which will make a difference."

Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland is part of the world's largest network of grassroots environmental organisations, Friends of the Earth International. It is also a member of Friends of the Earth Europe.