The EU has further specified the new rules for combatting the negative environmental impacts of single-use plastics

As the bans on single-use plastics start to take effect, the European Commission has issued guidelines clarifying the problematic aspects of this brand-new regulation. The pressing nature of the situation regarding plastics is confirmed by the European Environment Agency, which has published a report explaining that plastics are not only a problem of pollution, but also a problem of climate change. Their carbon footprint is too high and therefore in conflict with the zero-emission economy strategy. The textile industry accounts for a significant share of plastics use and will therefore be subject to fundamental legislative changes.

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New rules for single-use plastics

Along with the ban on introducing single-use plastics to the EU market (the implementation of which is rather lagging behind in many member states), the Commission has issued guidelines concerning single-use plastic products. This document further specifies some aspects which have not been sufficiently clear until now, such as which polymers may be considered natural, so that the products made from these do not subsequently become subject to a general ban. Each of the guidelines is supported through several studies. The authors of these studies deal, for example, with the specific definitions of the products which are subject to the directive, with the more general aspects of single-use plastics or tobacco products.

The ways to achieving circular plastics

The European Environment Agency has published a report named Plastics, the Circular Economy and Europe’s Environment. As indicated in the title, the document provides a detailed analysis of the impact plastics have on the environment, dealing especially with their role in a circular economy. The report draws attention to the increased extent of the use of plastics and provides data showing that their role remains crucial in terms of material and waste flows. This is the reason why plastics are the major focus even when dealing with a circular economy.

The report mentions a number of EU initiatives involved in tackling the issue of plastics, and points out that it is all the more necessary to coordinate these initiatives to aim toward more efficient progress. In its conclusion, the document defines three main ways towards reaching the circular economy of plastics: using plastics in a “smart” way, emphasising the possibility of their circular use, and using renewable materials, together with decarbonisation in the given segment.

Circular textile economy

The European Environment Agency has focused, among other things, on a material flow whose significant environmental impact has started to become more apparent only recently. Attention has been paid especially to textiles, as their volume has grown exponentially in the past few decades. The same applies to the share of plastics that are necessary for the production of textiles. As stated in the report, polyester gained the leading position over cotton in the late nineties of the 20th century and became the predominantly used material in the overall volume of textile production.

The report points out the environmental impacts during the life cycle of synthetic textile products and provides a comparison of the impacts and the demands of the individual textiles based on the production material. On the other hand, in its New Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Commission has previously established textiles as a priority category based on their “potential for circularity”. The report, again, presents three ways to increase circularity, and once again these ways are similar to the case of plastics: increasing the sustainability of the materials used, improving the collection system, reusing and recycling textiles, and efficient control over microplastic emissions.

Fundamental environmental changes are to be expected in the textile sector in the near future: starting with 2025, member states will need to ensure textile waste sorting; the Commission is to publish its strategy for sustainable textiles later this year.

Plastics emissions and the potential of bioplastics

Plastics and their wider environmental impacts are also the subject of another report of the European Environment Agency. The report deals with greenhouse gas emissions during the lifecycle of plastics and with their demands on natural resources as unintended side effects of their production.

One of the solutions proposed by the report for reducing the emissions and the production demands of plastics is using bioplastics, i.e. plastics that utilise biomass in their production. Unfortunately, even this solution may have its downsides, as the production of these plastics is demanding in terms of sustainability in other fields. A thorough evaluation of this option is therefore necessary before it is promoted on a larger scale. We must also keep in mind that with regard to the new rules concerning single-use plastics, bioplastics are likely to have a complicated journey ahead of them as well.

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