Throw-away, single-use plastic items that could easily be avoided or replaced with more durable solutions are responsible for half of the litter on European beaches, a new study by environmental group Seas At Risk found.

With support from Euonomia, a consultancy firm specialising in environmental research, the group collected rare data on single-use plastic on the market in Europe. They estimated that EU countries consume annually around 46 billion single-use bottles; 36.4 billion straws; 16 billion coffee cups; 2.5 billion takeaway packaging; and 580 billion cigarette butts. These account for 49% of beach litter in Europe.

Many single-use plastic items could alternatively be made of glass and paper, while others like drinking straws are used unnecessarily, the study finds.

These items, once discarded, represent a threat for the environment and a waste of resources for governments, businesses and citizens.

But Emma Priestland, who co-authored the report, suggested that a solution may be within the reach of progressive EU policy makers.

Initiatives to reduce the use of disposable items proved successful in countries and regions across Europe, suggesting that their implementation at the EU level may help curb one of the biggest environmental crises of our time.

Campaigners concluded that the most readily available solution is to either ban, when possible, or tax all single-use items.

The EU has already taken a similar approach to reduce plastic bags, which resulted in a drop of 80% used in Scotland.

Other examples include bottle deposit refund systems in Norway, standardised reusable coffee cups in Freiburg, Germany, municipal bans on disposable plastic at events in Munich, and the French ban on disposable plastic tableware. These measures were all very popular among citizens.

Emma Priestland, Marine Litter Policy Officer at Seas At Risk said:

‘Until now we had no idea of the scale of consumption of single use plastics. The numbers are staggering; it’s no wonder that on average 50% of beach litter is single-use plastic. The European Union and national governments can and must take legal action now to reduce the use of single-use plastics. This study points us to some very workable solutions.’

The report puts increasing pressure on the European Commission, which is expected to release a Plastics Strategy for EU countries by the end of the year.

In a draft seen by the EEB last week, the Commission seemed open to the introduction of EU-wide measures to discourage the use of throw-away plastic items and reduce packaging waste.

Seas At Risk promotes ambitious policies for marine protection at European and international level and is an active member of the European Environmental Bureau.

See full report here