The European Union is debating a ban which isn’t actually a ban on certain plastic items. These would include some of the most ubiquitous products such as straws, drink stirrers and cotton swabs with plastic shafts. While I normally approach any new ban proposals with a healthy amount of skepticism, this may be one case where they have a point. (Associated Press)

The European Union has proposed banning plastic products like cotton buds, straws, stirs and balloon sticks when alternatives are easily available in an attempt to reduce litter spoiling beaches and ocean beds.

The European Commission said its proposal would seek to cut marine litter in half for the ten most prominent items and avoid environmental damage estimated at over $250 billion over the next dozen years.

EU Vice President Frans Timmermans said that utensils would not be banned completely, but steps would be taken to have them made out of sustainable materials when possible.

“You can still organize a pick-nick, drink a cocktail and clean your ears just like before,” Timmermans said.

So this isn’t as heavy-handed as an actual “ban” the way the EU is framing it. It’s more of a call to focus on places where plastic can be replaced with materials which are more easily recycled where possible. That seems far more reasonable, and the EU is actually highlighting a very real and serious problem.

I haven’t been a fan of the plastic bag bans in the United States, mostly because of the entire nanny-state stench that always seems to come along with them. But at the same time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we have a plastic problem that’s already snuck up and begun to bite us on our collective backsides. Plastic straws may be among the worst culprits, though the rest of the small, constantly disposed of products are just as worrisome. Plastic simply doesn’t degrade and we’ve built up a massive amount of it which is cluttering the planet and creating some serious health hazards.

Plastic water bottles are estimated to take approximately 450 years to decompose in a landfill. Thicker, more substantial plastic material may last for up to 10,000 years. The amount of plastic floating around in different layers of our oceans is reaching epidemic proportions. I was particularly put off when I read about the sperm whale that washed up on the beach with 64 pounds of plastic trash clogging its guts.

I’m not saying we do away with all plastics. It’s simply too useful and meets many of our needs. Larger, more durable items can be handled well enough, though we need to do a better job of making sure they are melted down and recycled into new products at the end of their useful life. But the literally billions of straws which we throw away every year are pretty much never recycled. They go into the trash and eventually either into the ground or the oceans. The same with those “rings” that hold six-packs of bottles together.

The big problem is figuring out what we replace them with. We’re not just going to start doing without straws, right? But even the best paper or cardboard isn’t a very good substitute when you’re talking about conveying liquids. And even if we make that work, we would up the demand for wood pulp massively and we’re already struggling to keep up with the replanting of trees after logging operations. Glass would be ideal because it’s so easily recycled, but glass straws? Yes, they exist for laboratory work, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing them replace straws at McDonald’s any time soon.

I wish I had a solution to offer, but none of the plans I’ve seen so far are anywhere near perfect. But, as I said, I find myself forced to admit that we do indeed have a plastic problem and it’s only going to get worse at the rate we’re going. I’m not saying I want the United States government to start implementing bans now, but they should be encouraging cooperation with the private sector to find solutions to address this issue without wrecking the economy in the process.