Europe’s 2021 plastic ban: How will it affect Spain?

DISPOSABLE plastic has had its day in the European Union – by the year after next, heaps of everyday throwaway items that take up to 1,000 years to break down and disappear will be off the shelves in all 27 member States, including Spain.

Other types will be heavily restricted, and a third category will be the subject of prevention campaigns and recycling – although what can be recycled differs greatly depending upon where you are on the continent.

In Spain, all soft plastics, including cling film, crisp packets, packaging, carrier bags, and even wet-wipes can be dumped in the ‘yellow bin’ for sorting and re-use; the same container takes drinks cans, tins, and milk and juice cartons.

Yet in the UK, currently still the 28th member State, only hard plastics can be recycled – any kind of wrapper goes in landfill or is burnt, and the only way you can dispose of carrier bags without harming the environment is to return them to supermarkets; if they’ll take them.

Plastic plates, straws, cutlery, cups and bottles

Fiestas in Spain will have to undergo a massive change: plastic plates, cups, straws, cocktail-stirrers and cutlery, used three times daily by each of the peñas or festival ‘clubs’ for their open-air communal meals will be on the banned list by 2021.

At least, plastic cups, along with water bottles, will still be permitted, but at least 25% of them must be made with recycled plastic by 2025 and, by 2030, at least 30%.

Unless and until they disappear altogether, though, they can and should be dumped in the ‘yellow bin’.

Cotton buds and balloon-holders

Cotton buds made with plastic will be banned by 2021, although already some countries – including the UK – have started making them with paper instead.

Balloon manufacturers will be required to label their products to state the level of damage to the environment they cause, as well as giving some of their profits to the ocean clean-up – plastic in the sea is expected to exceed fish by volume by the year 2050 if it continues to be used at the current rate – and plastic sticks will no longer be permitted.

Food cartons

Takeaway food in foil or plastic cartons – commonly used in Spain, since practically all restaurants will allow you to take unfinished portions home – must be ‘significantly reduced’ in number by the year after next, and their manufacturers will be required to fund sea-cleaning to offset their ‘plastic footprint’.

These cartons are gradually being replaced with cardboard versions, but the foil and plastic ones can also go in the ‘yellow bins’; although it’s not compulsory, it’s kinder to wash them first.

Sanitary products are still made with plastic

Unfortunately for at least 50% of the population, eliminating their use of plastic altogether is virtually impossible: tampons, sanitary towels and incontinence pads are still partly made with plastic, and cannot feasibly be recycled for hygiene reasons. The same is true of wet-wipes or baby-wipes – if they’re used for face-cleaning, they can probably be put in the ‘yellow bin’, but for obvious reasons, not if they are employed as a toilet paper substitute.

Manufacturers will be obliged to label these products prominently to show they contain plastic and are not biodegradable, that they damage the environment unless properly disposed of, and that they should never be flushed down the lavatory.

Recent issues with wet-wipes have led to blocked pipes backing up onto the beach in Jávea (Alicante province) and a ‘fatberg’ of nearly a kilometre long in the underground drainage network in Valencia, with another not much smaller discovered in Tavernes de la Valldigna (Valencia province).

Carrier bag use falling thanks to ‘awareness’ and ‘charges’

A reduction in the use of plastic carrier bags has been clearly seen across the EU in recent years, partly because of compulsory charges – expect to pay between two and five cents for a small, flimsy version and 10 to 15 cents for a larger, stronger one in Spanish supermarkets – and partly through raising awareness.

Europe’s 2021 plastic ban: How will it affect Spain?

An estimated 70% of Spanish consumers bring their own reusable bags to stores, and the disposable versions can be recycled in the ‘yellow bin’.

Regrettably, their most prolific use – as rubbish bags – is difficult to reduce. Plastic bin bags designed for the purpose are no better, and for hygiene reasons, all non-recyclable household waste has to be in a sealed bag when dumped in wheelie-bins. For any household to go completely ‘plastic-free’, manufacturers will need to design carrier and bin bags from biodegradable material.

Some supermarkets have already dramatically slashed their disposable plastic – Lidl charges for carrier bags, but these are made of hard-wearing recycled paper, and their fruit and vegetable punnets are made from cardboard, albeit still with transparent soft plastic wrappers, which should be placed in the ‘yellow bin’.

Although carrier bags will not be banned altogether, manufacturers will be required to contribute resources towards cleaning up the seas and to use recycled plastic as much as possible.

Cigarette butts: EU calls for alternative material

It may not have occurred to the average smoker that cigarette filters – at least, some brands of these – contain plastic; although it is common knowledge that they are not biodegradable. Manufacturers will be subject to ‘responsible production’ requirements – although these have not been detailed as yet – and the EU is calling for them to develop an alternative type of filter which breaks down easily.

As yet, there is no channel for recycling cigarette butts – the only solution at present is to dispose of them in bins as much as possible and never to leave them on beaches; if you smoke on the beach, always collect up your butts and take them away with you.

Soft plastics: Recycle where you can

Fruit and sweet wrappers, packaging for crisps, nuts and chocolate bars will not be banned, but their producers must promote awareness campaigns about littering, and to take an active part in sorting and cleaning. In Spain, all of these can be recycled in the ‘yellow bin’.

Any lightweight waste suitable for recycling should be pushed down into the bin to prevent it from being blown out – plastic that ends up in the sea is not necessarily dumped there in the first instance, but is carried on the wind from up to 12 kilometres inland.

The EU’s main aim is to reduce the amount of disposable plastic used rather than seek alternatives of different materials, although where such materials are available, they should be employed in manufacturing, and householders should recycle everything they are able to.

Any plastic waste which could prove to be a death-trap for birds or animals should be cut up, including drinks six-pack dividers, plastic rings on bottle tops, and plastic netting for fruit or potatoes, for example.

Use your vote to protect the environment

With the local elections coming up in May – and in which UK nationals in Spain will still be able to vote, despite Brexit, thanks to a bilateral deal between the two governments – residents should lobby all political parties to provide suitable recycling facilities; some towns in Spain have ‘yellow bins’, paper and cardboard, glass and olive-oil banks on almost every street corner, but in others, having to walk for 10 or 15 minutes to the nearest recycling point means householders are tempted to just put all their waste in landfill, for convenience.

It is hoped that the EU will eventually set minimum recycling facility requirements across the bloc, forcing local councils’ hand where they are not doing enough to protect the environment.