Single-use plastics - a story of change

By Laura Sullivan, Executive Director of WeMove Europe, August 26th 2020

The headlines were pretty shocking. Eight million tonnes of plastic dumped in the ocean each year - the equivalent of a truckload per minute. [1] A lifeless whale on a Spanish beach, its stomach dismantled by 29 kgs of plastic waste. [2] The year was 2017 and momentum was building in Europe for a ban on single use plastics. But would enough people actually be willing to do something about it?

The answer was a resounding “yes”. Our community’s reaction to the plastics problem was literally massive. What we achieved shows how much we cared about our oceans, our environment, our wildlife. Here’s how we got there:

We joined up with some seriously skilled and knowledgeable partner organisations that knew we had a real chance to win, if we worked together. This included Break Free from Plastic, Rethink Plastic, SumOfUs, Uplift, Skiftet, Aufstehn, De Clic, and Campact. Each group brought different superpowers to the table – from understanding what’s happening inside the EU institutions, to expertise on plastics policy, to getting our message out in the press, to amplifying the voices of people across Europe that can speak truth to power in their own languages and on their own terms.

And so, we got started. The first step was a petition which sought to show the European Commission that we, a whopping 750,000 Europeans, cared enough to act. Frans Timmermans, then Vice-President of the European Commission, was going to open the EU conference on plastics, attended by everyone, from the industry and the plastics lobby to think tanks and NGOs. We needed to get his attention.

Billboards backed up our petition. In rapid response to our appeal, individuals from our community like you and I donated what each of us could to raise over €35,000. With partners, we plastered the area around Brussels and the conference venue with 150 billboards displaying images of fish, birds and ocean life killed by plastics. On the day of the conference, we delivered our hundreds of thousands of signatures.

One of our billboards in Brussels on the day of the conference

Interestingly, Mr. Timmermans did not just nod, smile, and politely accept the petition on that day in Brussels. He told us that he would be our “ally” and fight for an ambitious EU strategy on plastics. Some minutes later, he was back in that conference room, talking about our petition in his opening speech, speaking to everyone from the plastics industry to environmental groups. Right after, he posted a video of our petition delivery to his social media. [3] It felt like a good start.

Handing over the signatures to Vice-President Timmermans with our friends from Campact and Rethink Plastic Alliance

A few months later, in January 2018, the Commission adopted its proposal on plastics. And it was actually great. It proposed unprecedented measures to curb plastic waste, including banning some single-use plastics. [4] So, we went back to work with a new petition targeted at the European Council and all EU governments. And it’s a good thing we did - as it turns out, Coca Cola, Nestle, and Pepsi had already been lobbying our national governments. [5] Any one of them could have vetoed it. But our governments stood behind us, and the proposal continued to the European Parliament.

Right before the Environment Committee’s vote, some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) proposed changes that were pretty awful, and some got accepted -- meaning they went on to be voted by the whole Parliament. If they were accepted in that next vote, we knew the new directive would be essentially meaningless, and wildlife and our environment would continue to be ravaged by plastics. [6]

We knew we had to pull out all the stops to prevent a disastrous outcome. So, we emailed our MEPs to convince them to hold strong on the ban -- in total we sent our MEPs almost 100,000 emails! Some MEPs really didn’t like getting so many emails. Others wrote and said it was amazing to see this kind of engagement. But the results were clear: MEPs voted down the worst amendments and voted for a strong law against single-use plastics. [7]

In 2019, we got a new EU law banning some of the worst offender plastics in the whole EU. Those plastic straws, cups and cutlery that defy logic and drive us utterly mad will be gone by next year. [8]

The campaign itself connected masses of people to push for a ban on a whole lot of dodgy plastics. But it also got many people to stop and think: Why am I buying so much plastic crap? Why are there only plastic straws in bars and shops? And why is industry not producing alternatives that don’t destroy oceans, for which there are no alternatives?

It inspired a lot of people to think about doing things differently. Ultimately, it’s the story of how the fight for a law, a ban on single-use plastics, has already achieved so much before it’s even been enacted. Yes, it will ban a range of the world’s worst single-use plastics in Europe in just a few months’ time. But it’s also shown that it’s possible to bring people together from all corners of Europe, to demand a more sustainable and responsible world.

But the story isn’t over yet: Right now, the EU ban on single-use plastics is being implemented and enacted in all EU countries, including yours. And exactly how that’s done will differ from country to country. So, it’s a perfect opportunity for the plastics industry. They’re still trying to get lots of plastics exempt from the law taking effect this coming January. Watch this space for the latest chapter in this story, coming soon...


[6] The amendments would have continued to allow some of the worst single use plastics if they were considered “biodegradable,” and otherwise let polluters like Pepsi, Nestle, and Coca Cola off the hook for their plastic pollution.
[8] “Plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers, balloons sticks, products made of oxo-degradable plastic and food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene will be banned from 2021. Member States will take measures to achieve a reduction in the consumption of cups and food containers. These measures shall achieve a measurable quantitative reduction by 2026 compared to 2022. Bottles will have tethered caps from 2024 and be made of 25% of recycled content by 2025 for PET bottles (30 % by 2030 for all bottles). 90% of plastic bottles will have to be separately collected by 2029.”