Couple holding bamboo glasses while drinking from metal straw at home model released Symbolfoto property released MGRF00412

Since July 3, 2021, a directive has been in force in the European Union that is intended to limit environmental pollution from plastic products and promote the transition to a circular economy. Disposable cutlery, straws, cotton swabs and certain plastic food packaging and Styrofoam cups may no longer be sold. In Germany, the distribution of plastic shopping bags has also been restricted since 2022.

However, in some cases disposable plastic is being replaced by disposable products made from other materials, such as coated paper, which have a similarly large ecological footprint and are difficult to recycle. In addition, many products made of single-use plastic remain unaffected by the bans.

“It is difficult to judge whether the guideline has brought more sensible solutions into the discussion or whether activism predominates,” said Benedikt Kauertz of the Science Media Center Germany (SMC). The head of the Industry and Products department at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg understands activism to mean “changes that are not always effective in terms of the ecological balance” – such as the use of environmentally harmful substitute products for single-use plastic. “In the media, we usually perceive actionism much more strongly,” says Kauertz. So far, there has been a lack of valid data to assess the effectiveness of the directive.

However, the experts interviewed by the SMC largely agree on one effect. “The industry has understood that the European Commission is also ready for massive market interventions in the form of product bans and that this is also supported by the population,” says Henning Wilts, an expert in circular economy at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. The product bans were received very positively by the general public. “Accordingly, a rethinking is actually recognizable in many areas,” says Wilts.

So far, however, the record for Germany has been rather modest. “The ban potentially leads to a slight reduction in the amount of plastic waste from private households of around 0.4 kilograms per inhabitant and year,” says David Laner, head of the Resource Management and Waste Technology department at the University of Kassel. That corresponds to around 1.6 percent of the annual amount of plastic packaging waste.

On July 20, the EU Commission intends to present further new strategies for the circular economy. The use of biodegradable plastic should be regulated and guidelines for the design of plastic packaging should be updated. The Commission also wants to regulate claims by companies about the sustainability of their products more tightly in order to prevent greenwashing, the whitewashing of the ecological balance of products. Because so far unsuitable substitute materials for single-use plastic have also been used.

“When you look at the entire life cycle, products like this don’t do any better,” says Wilts. In the packaging sector, for example, paper and cardboard are increasingly being combined with plastics, which looks more ecologically compatible than foil, but makes recycling of the packaging massively more difficult. “Here, the legislator is urgently required to ensure more transparency and to support consumers in their consumption decisions,” says Wilts.

There are points of contact: “The single-use plastic products have often been replaced by products made from natural materials, such as drinking straws made from bamboo, cutlery made from wood or plates made from cardboard,” says Jürgen Sutter from the Öko-Institut in Darmstadt. Durable materials are also used, such as metal drinking straws. “For the environment, such products represent a significant improvement because, unlike plastic products, they are less likely to be discharged into the oceans and, in the case of natural materials, are biodegradable in the environment,” says Sutter.

The ban is an important signal against plastic pollution, but could be supplemented, for example with an EU-wide deposit system for single-use plastic products, as is already the case in Germany for beverage packaging. “This would create a strong incentive for consumers to return the products to recycling after use,” says Sutter.

At the European level, not only single-use plastic products should be considered, but clear incentives should be set overall for phasing out the throw-away society. “When banning individual products, it should always be considered which alternative products the market will probably switch to,” says Henning Wilts. It would be “necessary” for industry to share extensively in the environmental costs caused by their products.