The Maltese Government issued the Single-Use Plastic Products Strategy for Malta 2020-2030 (the 'Strategy') in May 2019, just before the Directive 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment (the 'Directive') was brought into force. The Strategy's stated aim is to aid Malta's move towards a more circular economy in the light of the work carried out by the European Commission towards this end. It highlights measures to be taken to eliminate plastic pollution and details alternatives to the use of single-use plastic products.Its ambit, like that of the Directive, extends well beyond plastic beverage containers and plastic packaging to cover even sanitary products and tobacco filter products. The Strategy was open to feedback and comments until June 2019; the idea is to update and review the Strategy periodically to ensure that changes in societal attitudes and items made from single use plastic are addressed.

Malta's first Single-Use Plastics Strategy

The main scope of the Strategy is to reduce the amount of single-use plastic products that are consumed, as well as to simultaneously increase the amount of single-use plastic products that are collected to be recycled, and to, therefore, reduce the negative impact plastic pollution has on both the environment and human health. This comes in the wake of the increase in plastic waste being generated in Malta, whilst recycling rates have remained stable. In particular, the Strategy seeks to promote and facilitate the process leading to end-of-waste status of single-use plastics, thereby promoting the circular economy.

The Strategy is concerned with the following single-use plastic products: beverage containers and beverage bottles; tobacco product filters; cotton bud sticks; packets and wrappers; sanitary items; plastic carrier bags; disposable plates and cutlery; straws; beverage cups and stirrers; pizza lid supports; balloons and their sticks; food containers; containers for toiletries; lollipop sticks; plastic kebab sticks; plastic toothpicks; plastic confetti; plastic wristbands; detergent containers; and fishing gear. The Strategy focuses on these products on the assumption that these are the most commonly found littered single-use plastic items – this list includes the top ten single-use plastic products identified by the European Commission in its Impact Assessment on the use of single-use plastic products.

The Strategy contains a list of proposed measures, with reference to specific target products.For instance, by 2022 carrier bags will not be distributed for free at the point of sale and a return or refillable system is to be introduced for detergent containers and containers for toiletries.

On an altogether larger scale, the Strategy indicates that the Ministry for the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change is currently finalising the introduction of a Beverage Container Refund Scheme. This scheme is designed to increase the collection rates of single-use plastic beverage containers, reduce littering, and enhance Malta's efforts in reaching EU recycling targets. Much like other deposit refund systems, this system is expected to facilitate the separation of waste streams at source.The Strategy also indicates that by 2024, only beverage containers with plastic caps and lids attached to the container will be placed on the market.Even more imminently, by 2021, the placement of, among others, plastic lollipop sticks, straws, cutlery, plates, beverage cups and stirrers on the market should be restricted.

Another measure to be adopted is marking requirements. By 2021, it will be mandatory for sanitary items, wet wipes, tobacco products, and beverage cups to bear legible markings on their packaging or the product itself highlighting the presence of plastic in the product's composition, and informing consumers on waste management options. Besides enabling Malta to fulfil its obligations under Article 7 of the Directive, such marking requirements will also create better awareness among the general public, especially considering the lack of knowledge regarding the presence of plastics in these single-use products. Through marking requirements, the public would, thus, be educated on the proper way to dispose of single-use plastic products as well as their more sustainable alternatives where available.

Most of the single-use plastic products falling within the scope of the Strategy will see their presence on the market restricted. Products made from oxo-degradable plastic will be prohibited by 2021.

The Strategy also seeks to encourage the introduction of a number of voluntary measures, such as the promotion of reusable and refillable toiletries, bottles and cups in hotels, hostels and other holiday premises, as well as introducing benefits to students who take reusable and refillable containers when purchasing items from shops on campus, or consumers who use refillable beverage cups.This incentivises the use of reusable and refillable containers to help lessen the generation of plastic waste and the consumption of single-use plastic packaging.

The presence of chemicals in sanitary products

Aside from the presence of plastic in sanitary products, the potentially hazardous chemical composition of sanitary products was emphasised in Recital 19 of the Directive.The Strategy does not extend its scope to the reduction of the use of harmful chemicals in sanitary products since its scope is restricted to the reduction of plastic pollution. However, subsidiary legislation enacted under the Product Safety Act (Cap 427 of the laws of Malta) deals with this issue through its implementation of Regulation 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), establishing a European Chemicals Agency, amending Directive 1999/45/EC and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No 793/93 and Commission Regulation (EC) No 1488/94 as well as Council Directive 76/769/EEC and Commission Directives 91/155/EEC, 93/67/EEC, 93/105/EC and 2000/21/EC.

By virtue of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation And Restriction Of Chemicals (REACH) (Implementation) Regulations, the Technical Division within the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority is designated as the competent authority. It is therefore entrusted with ensuring that the goods being placed on the market conform to the relevant product safety regulations and that no azocolourants and azodyes are used in detectable concentrations in, inter alia, sanitary products since these come into close contact with human skin for a prolonged period of time.

Concluding remarks

While the Strategy contains several short to medium term measures, the intention is for its beneficial effects to be felt in the long term. It is designed to create a circular economy where plastic will not reach its end of life status after its first rotation round the market. To achieve its socio-economic benefits, the Strategy will have to be periodically reviewed and updated accordingly.Given that a number of measures are proposed for the next couple of years, it remains to be seen how the stated objectives are achieved, and to what extent.