On Wednesday 24 October the European Parliament approved, by an overwhelming majority, the proposal for a Directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment (the “Proposal”) with amendments.[1] The Proposal presents a number of measures intended to reduce plastic waste and prevent marine litter. The measures are significant which, if made law, will have major implications for producers, designers, the waste management industry and consumers. The Proposal will now be considered by the Council and more developments are anticipated shortly.

Scope of the Proposal

The stated main objective of the Proposal is to prevent and to reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, in particular on the aquatic life and environment. This is achieved by defining specific waste prevention and waste management objectives and measures in relation to single-use plastic products that are most found on the beaches in the EU and fishing and aquaculture gear containing plastic. The products listed are food containers, cups for beverages; cotton bud sticks; cutlery (forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks); plates; sticks to be attached to and to support balloons; straws, except for straws intended and used for medical purposes; beverage stirrers; beverage containers; sanitary items and wet wipes; packets and wrappers made from flexible material containing food that is intended for immediate consumption; tobacco products with filters and filters marketed for use in combination with tobacco products and lightweight plastic carrier bags.

Ban on certain single-use plastic products

The Proposal places a complete ban on specified single-use plastics, including cutlery and plates, drink stirrers, straws, cotton buds and balloon sticks, on the basis that readily available alternatives of such products already exist. These products, as well as those made of oxo-degradable plastics, such as bags or packaging, and fast food containers made of expanded polystyrene, will be banned from the EU market by 2021 under the draft wording.

Consumption reduction measures

At present the Proposal states that single-use plastic products, where no readily available alternative exists, must be reduced by at least 25% in Member States by 2025. This includes single-use food and drink containers, such as burger boxes and plastic cups. Reduction measures will also include tobacco products, compelling cigarette manufacturers to reduce the plastic in filters by 50% by 2025, and 80% by 2030. By 2025 beverage bottles must be made from at least 35% recycled content and be recyclable.

Extended producer responsibility schemes

It is proposed that such schemes be introduced for tobacco product filters including plastic and fishing gear containing plastic.

Clean up obligations

Under the Proposal, producers of single-use plastics that are subject to the reduction measures will be required to contribute to the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness raising measures. The draft Directive also requires Member States to ensure that at least 50% of lost or abandoned fishing gear containing plastic is collected per year, with a recycling target of at least 15% by 2025. It remains to be seen how this requirement will be implemented in practice, although in any event it is likely to significantly extend producers’ obligations and financial contributions in relation to plastic waste.

National plans

Member States would be required to develop national plans to encourage the use of products suitable for multiple use, as well as recycling and national quantitative reduction targets.

Plastic bottles will have to be separately collected and recycled at a rate of 90% by 2025 under the Proposal, for example through a deposit return scheme (“DRS”). Similar schemes already operate in countries such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The UK and the Welsh Government are to consult on a DRS proposal before Christmas, whilst Scotland has already consulted on a DRS.

Next Steps

Discussions with the Council will follow the recent European Parliament vote. Depending on the outcome of those discussions the proposals could become law shortly. Manufacturers and producers and all those in the supply chain should follow developments closely.

The use of plastics and their lifecycle has come under intense scrutiny and the Proposal is one of a range of devices to address the issue. More locally, earlier this week, DEFRA launched a consultation proposing to ban the sale and distribution of plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds in England by 2020, and is expected to publish its Resources and Waste Strategy later this year, which will examine further ways to reduce avoidable waste and increase recycling. On a wider scale on 29 October 2018 “The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment” was launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with UN Environment. Setting out a common vision and targets to address plastic waste and pollution at its source, reportedly “signatories include companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, as well as governments, NGOs, universities, industry associations, investors, and other organisations.”