Plastic pollution has become a key environmental concern. And it is not surprising why: according to a recent study, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics that have been produced so far, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of this plastic waste, 79% is accumulating either in landfill sites or in the oceans.

Therefore, on 28 May 2018 the EU Commission issued a new draft Directive aimed at tackling marine litter by addressing single use plastic items and abandoned fishing gear.

Marine litter – more plastic, fewer fish

Plastic pollution is becoming a main environmental concern. And it is not surprising why: according to a recent study, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics that have been produced so far, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of this plastic waste, 79% is accumulating either in landfill sites or in the oceans. Action is therefore urgently needed to tackle this.

After the launch of a few initiatives in view of banning microplastics and microbeads in products (you can read all about it in our previous post – in Dutch – here), the EU has now decided to propose a new Directive, aimed at reducing marine pollution more broadly. This is one step further in the fight to tackle marine plastics, including plastic microbeads.

More specifically, the European Commission issued the draft Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on 28 May 2018 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment. This proposal addresses the primary sources of marine pollution in Europe:

  • single use plastic items; and
  • abandoned, lost and disposed of fishing gear banning certain single use plastic items.

Together, these plastic items constitute 70% of all marine litter.

Key elements of the draft Directive

For the purpose of this draft Directive, the Commission has established a list with the top ten “single use plastic products” found on European beaches by count. These ten items represent 86% of all the single use plastic items (and 43% of all the marine litter found on European beaches by count):

  1. food containers;
  2. cups for beverages;
  3. cotton bud sticks;
  4. cutlery, plates, stirrers, straws;
  5. sticks for balloons and balloons;
  6. packets and wrappers;
  7. beverage containers, their caps and lids, and beverage bottles;
  8. tobacco product filters;
  9. sanitary items (wet wipes and sanitary towels); and
  10. lightweight plastic carrier bags.

Fishing gear on the other hand represents 27% of the marine litter found on the European beaches by count.

For each of these ten single use plastics, as well as for the fishing gear, the Commission proposes a set of seven measures that will apply according to the characteristics of each item:

  1. consumption reduction targets: Member States will have to reduce the use of some single use plastics by setting national reduction targets, making alternative products available, etc.;
  2. market restriction: some single use plastics will be banned altogether;
  3. product design requirements;
  4. marking requirements: certain products will require labelling as to how they should be disposed of;
  5. extended producer responsibility: producers will be obliged to share in the cost of waste management and clean up, and will be given incentives in order to develop alternatives to single use plastics;
  6. separate collection objective: through, for example, deposit refund schemes;
  7. awareness raising measures: Member States will have to raise consumer’s awareness about single use plastics littering.

The envisaged measures for the single use plastics are as follows:

Extended producer responsibility schemes are based on the polluter-pays principle laid down in Article 191(2) TFEU.Extended producer responsibility: the polluter-pays principle

Such schemes are already well-established in the field of waste and water, and in particular in the Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC, the Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste 1994/62/EEC, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive 91/271/EEC.

However, while the general minimum requirements for extended producer responsibility in the Waste Framework Directive will apply to the proposed Directive, the Directive itself will also lay down specific and additional requirements for the financial responsibility of producers, and specifically for awareness raising campaigns and the clean-up of litter.

The aim of this Directive is to shift the cost for the clean-up and the recycling of these littered plastic items from the public sector (and thus, tax payers) and other private sector bodies such as tourism and fisheries authorities, to the producers of these single use plastic items themselves.

More fish, less plastic?

Some issues remain nevertheless. For example, instead of setting specific EU reduction targets for food containers and beverage cups, the draft Directive delegates this task to the Member States. This may result in inadequate or differentiated reduction targets from (unwilling) Member States.

That being said, with this draft Directive, the Commission is taking a big leap forward in tackling the growing plastic threat. Until recently, the EU addressed plastic pollution only indirectly. By using this tailor-made Directive, it becomes more likely that the EU might reverse the negative trend and provide legislation to clean up our oceans.