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Future EU Law on Single Use Plastics to Be Voted on by European Parliament, but Criticism of Its Key Provisions Abound

On 28 May 2018, the European Commission published its proposal for a Directive on single-use plastics (SUPs). This draft law envisages banning a number of frequently used products – such as plastic straws, cutlery and plates – from the EU market, while imposing other obligations on plastic goods producers. This proposal has since been heavily debated among stakeholders. The EU institutions aim to adopt the Directive in early 2019, before the European elections (which are to be held from 23 May 2019). Hong Kong’s marketers exporting single use plastic products to the European Union will be affected by the proposed Directive in the same way as those from within the EU and elsewhere.

On 29 August, a debate was held in the ENVI Committee on the proposal, and more specifically on the draft report prepared by ENVI committee rapporteur, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Frédérique Ries. The report is a response to the proposed Directive that will target the 10 single-use plastic products that are allegedly most commonly found on Europe's beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear. In practice, when adopted, this draft report will be the official position of the European Parliament in the negotiations with the Council of the EU (i.e., all Member States). It is therefore an important step in the European Union’s legislative process.

In her report, Ms. Ries highlighted the weaknesses of the Commission’s proposal. Notably, she said that the Commission’s proposal, which supposedly relates to the 26 million tonnes a year of plastics, most of them single use, that the EU is estimated to be responsible for, is “too vague”. Moreover, she emphasised that the Commission would need to take stronger action on particular items, such as a ban on ultra-light plastic bags, that are among the biggest sources of pollution. The draft report also demands a compulsory target, namely, that beverage containers be produced with at least 25% of recycled plastics by 2025. Furthermore, Ries’s report advocates for consumption reduction targets, obligations for producers to help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, awareness-raising measures and collection targets, particularly in view of the proposed obligation on EU Member States to collect 90% of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025.

However, the parliamentary draft report has received mixed reactions from stakeholders. For example, the waste management association FEAD and the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC) stated that collecting up to 90% of plastic bottles in 2025, as proposed in the draft Directive, is a welcome first step but will not be enough to steer the plastics market towards less single-use bottles. They also noted that designing recyclable packaging items is necessary to facilitate recycling, and a strong signal is needed to boost both the offer of recyclable plastics and the demand for recycled plastics.

Zero Waste Europe, a sustainable products campaigner, warned that favouring recycling could actually result in greater exposure to hazardous chemicals if there are no additional steps taken to trigger transparency of chemical substances in products. It also recommended improving the traceability of products from waste to new raw materials.

Friends of the Earth, a well-known campaign group, indicated in a recent statement that an EU-wide Directive to tackle single-use plastics must ensure that conventional plastics are not substituted with bio-based or biodegradable plastics, as these bio plastics still produce micro plastic pieces which pollute the environment just like conventional plastics.

Probably the strongest opposition to the draft report emanated from a coalition of 68 European packaging producers, urging the Parliament and the Council to abandon the proposal. This coalition is particularly opposed to Article 8 of the proposed Directive that would require the establishment of extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes whereby plastics producers will have to shoulder financial responsibility for single-use plastic litter clean-ups. It argues that EU plastics producers cannot solely bear the substantial costs associated with litter clean-ups.

On a more political level, under the circular economy package legislation adopted on 22 May this year, EU Member States will have to ensure collection of 50% of their plastic packaging waste for recycling by 2025, rising to 55% in 2030. However, legislators did not fix legally binding targets for the use of such recycled plastic. To remedy this situation, in July MEPs backed a draft resolution on the EU plastics strategy, and argued that voluntary pledges from the industry may not be sufficient, while “mandatory rules for recycled content for specific products may be needed”. So far, the European Commission seems to favor voluntary commitments on this matter. Voluntary pledges have indeed recently been taken by the bottled water industry, to use 25% recycled PET in its plastic bottles, and to ensure that at least nine out of ten bottles are collected, by 2025. Public sector waste authorities also recently called for a 50% recycled content requirement by the same year, rising to 75% ten years later.

Furthermore, in response to MEP Frédérique Ries’s draft report, shadow rapporteurs (draftspersons) for other parliamentary political groups have made their contradicting voices heard. For example, at a discussion on the effect of plastic marine litter on fisheries and oceans, the lead negotiator of the centre-left S&D group in the ENVI committee, Massimo Paolucci, said he wanted to see an outright ban on plastic products that are substitutable, while the centre-right EPP lawmaker Maria Spyraki said plastic waste should be tackled through awareness-raising and support for businesses.

Also, on 29 August 2018, the ENVI committee’s MEPs met to discuss their rapporteur’s draft report. They agreed to call upon the European Commission to act with greater haste in banning single use plastics. They stated that much more needed to be done if a future Directive is to spur a big reduction in plastic waste by 2030.

For more information and details on the European Commission’s proposed Directive, please see Regulatory Alert-EU, Issue 12/2018, and click on the following European Commission web-page.

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