On 19 December 2018, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union reached a provisional political agreement on the proposal for a directive on the reduction of environmental impact of certain plastic products, the so called Single-use plastics directive proposal. After the adoption of a general framework for plastics, the EU Strategy for Plastics in Circular Economy, the Commission developed this new legislation in order to target the most commonly occurring marine litter.
EU Plastics Strategy
In January 2018, the Commission adopted the above mentioned EU Plastics Strategy, which calls for a circular economy with effective recycling that would lead to the sustainable disposal of plastics. It accepts, on the one hand, that plastics are currently an important part of the economy. On the other hand, however, it notes that production and their use may harm the environment. Of particular concern is the growing consumption of single-use plastics which was identified as an issue for urgent action.
Single-use plastics proposal
In May 2018, the Commission introduced the Single-use plastics directive proposal which focuses on two items which make up the majority of marine litter: single-use plastics and fishing gear containing plastics. The Commission stressed that 80-85% of marine litter is plastic. Single-use plastic products count for half of this, followed by fishing gear as the second most common item.
The main objective of the proposed directive is to prevent and reduce the impact of certain plastic products, mainly on the aquatic environment. This should be achieved by defining specific waste prevention and waste management objectives and measures. The core of the proposal concerns consumption reduction measures, market restrictions, product design and marking requirements, extended producer responsibility and separate collection objectives.
Member States are required to achieve a significant reduction in the consumption of products such as food containers and beverage cups. Furthermore, restrictions on the placement of single-use plastic products onto the market will be introduced. Member States must prohibit single-use plastic products for which alternatives exist, such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates and straws. The proposal also establishes product design requirements for single-use plastic beverage containers. These requirements ensure that caps and lids with a significant part made of plastic remain attached to the container during its use, so that waste of this nature does not leak into the environment. As to the marking requirements, consumers should be properly informed about the potential consequences of inappropriate waste disposal with respect to products such as tampons, wet wipes or balloons. Extended producer responsibility lays down obligations for producers, such as setting up awareness raising campaigns and, in the case of single-use plastics the clean-up of litter. These measures concern products such as food containers, packets and wrappers, cigarette butts and balloons. The proposal further requires that Member States achieve a minimum separate collection target for single-use plastic beverage bottles, which should be, by 2025, equal to 90%. The proposal also implements the Aarhus Convention with regard to access to justice. It should be possible for citizens or NGOs, under certain conditions, to challenge the decisions, actions or omissions related to the implementation of this Directive before national courts.
More ambitious amendments by the European Parliament
The proposal was sent to the European Parliament, which adopted the proposal, with significant, more ambitious amendments, with an overwhelming majority vote in October 2018. More particular and stricter targets were set and products containing oxo-degradable plastics, such as bags and packaging, and single-use food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, were added. In relation to consumption reduction, the European Parliament introduced a minimum reduction target of at least 25% by 2025. Furthermore, Member States have to take measures to achieve a reduction in the environmental impact of waste from tobacco product filters containing plastic, by reducing its post-consumption waste, to the amount of 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2030. Producers should also cover the costs of collecting, transporting and processing tobacco product waste. The amendments also require Member States to ensure that by 2025, beverage bottles may be placed on the market only if they are recyclable and made from at least 35% recycled content.
The position of the Council
In October 2018, the Council adopted its position which, inter alia, modifies the definition of single-use plastic products. According to the Council, these products are typically intended to be used just once or for a short period of time before being disposed of. The Council also aims for a more ambitious proposal, by extending the obligation to cover the cost of litter clean-up not only to plastic producers, but also to companies that import or sell single-use plastic products. The Council has underlined the need for the rapid development of harmonised standards to ensure that this part of the proposal is implemented effectively.
Promising future steps
Overall, the proposal should be regarded as a great step towards a circular economy in which plastics and plastic waste are carefully managed and prevented from getting into our rivers and oceans. The proposed amendments strive for an additional and even stricter regime in the field of plastic management. It is thus praiseworthy and promising that after only a few months of negotiations, the EU Institutions have reached political agreement on the proposed Directive. Even though it still needs to be formally approved by the European Parliament and the Council, the Directive, considered to be the most ambitious legal instrument for addressing marine litter, will become a reality.