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A shift in the retail industry: Germany implements EU ban on plastics

A shift in the retail industry : Germany implements EU ban on plastics

They litter parks and pollute the world's oceans: disposable plastic products. Starting this Saturday, an EU-wide ban will take effect on some items. It is aimed at removing plastic cutlery and other disposable items from circulation.

The change has been introduced - and now it’s officially a done deal. Plastic cutlery and other disposable products are to disappear from all shelves in Germany starting on Saturday.

Plates, knives, forks, cotton swabs, straws, balloon sticks - the EU-wide ban affects many familiar products that stores of all kinds still offer day after day.

The EU also wants to ban the use of to-go cups, fast-food packaging and disposable containers made of polystyrene from the market. The 2019 Plastics Directive, which every member state must implement from July 3, includes ten products that countries will either no longer be allowed to put into circulation or will have to take special measures to reduce.

Man-made disaster

The reason: together with fishing gear, the products account for 70 percent of all maritime waste in the EU. A man-made disaster for the environment - which is also due to articles for which there are not yet adequate alternatives made from other materials. These include sanitary pads, cigarettes with filters made of plastic, and to-go cups made of or containing plastic.

There is no ban on these products yet due to a lack of alternatives. However, as of Saturday, they will receive a new label in Germany that is intended to warn consumers of the environmental damage and provide tips on how to dispose of them. "An important step out of the throwaway society" is what Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) calls the innovations.

According to the Environment Ministry, around 320,000 disposable cups for coffee and the like are consumed every hour in Germany. To-go packaging and disposable eating utensils still accounted for more than 346,000 tons of waste in 2017. According to the Federal Environment Agency, there are no more up-to-date figures.

Hoping for cleaner cities

The Verband kommunaler Unternehmen (German Association of Local Public Utilities) estimates that the products covered by the EU Plastics Directive account for around 20 percent of street litter. "Up to now, their disposal has been financed entirely through street cleaning fees or municipal budgets and thus passed on to the general public," says vice president of the association, Patrick Hasenkamp. He is relieved about the EU-wide ban on plastic articles. It strengthens "the backs of the municipal city cleaners in their fight against littering" and ensures cleaner cities, says Hasenkamp.

Municipal waste management companies in particular are "the ones who suffer from the to-go boom”. They struggle with rising costs to remove waste from public spaces. The costs are around 700 million euros per year.

Remaining inventories can still be sold

It is difficult to assess whether these costs will fall so quickly. After all, the remaining plastic cutlery that stores, snack bars and restaurants still have in their warehouses may still be sold after July 3. The same applies to all other products that will be banned from now on - what is strictly prohibited, however, is "placing on the market," i.e. importing the products or putting them on the market for the first time, as the EU Parliament clarified in response to a question.

The German Retail Association (Handelsverband Deutschland, HDE) does not believe that there are any "large quantities" of the remaining products. However, it cannot put a more precise figure on the scale of plastic goods still out there. Overall, retailers in Germany have already taken precautions in recent months to prepare for the alternatives, according to a spokesperson.

Alternatives not always ideal

The substitute products that have now been on the shelves for some time include forks made of bamboo or straws made of paper. These are not always the healthiest options, warn consumer advocates. Some of the alternative cutlery and containers are contaminated with chemicals and are not fully biodegradable, the European consumer association BEUC recently criticized.

The Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband (Federation of German Consumer Organizations) highlights further hurdles on its website. For example, the idea of simply replacing plastic with paper leads to the depletion of forests, which play a key role in climate protection. The federation advises against aluminum trays because of their high energy consumption.

So everything is much more complicated than we thought? Environment Minister Schulze repeatedly emphasizes that it is also a question of mentality that needs to change. The best alternative is not to use disposable products in the first place and to use products more than once, says the minister.

During her time in office, Schulze also introduced a legal basis to help change the mindset: starting in 2023, caterers, delivery services and restaurants in Germany will be obliged to offer reusable containers as an alternative to disposable items. This is another step that should help to lead the way out of a throwaway society.

(Orig. text: Fatima Abbas, dpa; Translation: ck)