For the first time ever, the Commission links findings in the environment with specific measures at the European level. The proposed measures include on the one hand bans, for example of straws and stirrers made of plastic. On the other hand the Commission wants to introduce extended producer responsibility covering waste management, labelling of products regarding their negative environmental impact, or awareness raising measures on the use of single-use products. Moreover, the product design phase is addressed – the lids of single-use plastic bottles for example would have to be attached to the bottle in its use phase.
“Every plastic fork ending up on the beach is one too many”, says Maria Krautzberger, president of the German Environment Agency, “however, we need to make clear that bans alone will not do the trick. Reusable products should always be the first choice which is why we need proper incentives to promote them.”
The German Environment Agency welcomes the Commission’s proposal of measures aiming at the reduction of input of single-use plastic products into the environment based on the litter items most commonly found on beaches. Despite their short usage period, these products remain in the marine environment for many years due to the durability of the material, where they might cause considerable harm to the ecosystems before fragmenting into much smaller parts.
Especially important are awareness raising measures proposed by the Commission and informing the public on negative environmental impacts of improper waste disposal. One example includes the labelling of products such as wet wipes and sanitary towels, which often are wrongly disposed of in toilets and not as residual waste.
From an environmental perspective, especially article 10 is to be highlighted, in which member states are to provide information on available re-use systems, which is often the most environmentally friendly option.
For some products for which the Commission foresees bans, plastic free alternatives already exist. This is the case for cotton buds, which are also available in paper, single-use plates made of paper, wood or other materials, as well as straws made of glass, metal or semolina. However, for all these alternatives, the question whether they constitute the more environmentally friendly alternative has to be assessed individually.
Only thorough analyses of an individual product life cycle allows a clear recommendation. From a life cycle perspective, it is likely that some alternative products might perform worse than their plastic alternatives. However, life cycle analyses do not reflect the impact of plastic inputs into the (marine) environment. Life cycle analyses are a reasonable way of assessing the environmental impact of product- and material alternatives. However, they are not sufficient for political decisions regarding the input of problematic materials into the environment.
Accompanying the legislative proposal, the Commission published an impact assessment, analyzing the alternatives to product groups to be banned. The German Environment Agency will carry out a thorough assessment of the impact assessment.
The legislative proposal contains seven categories of measures, each addressing different product groups:
- Reduction targets for food containers and cups. Possible measures include reduction targets for the use of these products or minimal targets for reusable alternatives;
- Bans for the following plastic products: cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, and balloon sticks. The use of alternative materials in producing these products should be in line with reducing the impact of plastic products on the environment as well as human health;
- Product requirements on single-use plastic bottles. These bottles are to be designed in a way that the lid is attached to the bottle in its use phase;
- Labelling of sanitary items, tampons and tampon applicators, and balloons. Clearly visible labels are to be introduced for these product groups informing about the negative impact of littering of these products;
- Extended producer responsibility for food containers, foils to wrap foods, plastic bottles and their lids, cups and their lids, cigarettes with filters as well as filters sold separately, wet wipes, balloons, lightweight and very lightweight plastic bags. For these products, producers are to cover the costs for collection, transport, treatment as well as cleanup costs for marine litter and awareness-raising measures. These measures also apply to fishing gear. In addition, member states are to collect all waste fishing gear.
- Separate collection of single-use plastic bottles: member states are to make sure that 90 % of all plastic bottles placed on the market are collected separately until 2025;
- Awareness raising measures: member states are to make sure that consumers are informed about available re-use systems, waste management options and best practice examples. Moreover, information shall be provided on the impact of littering and other improper waste treatment on the environment, especially the marine environment.
Background: The European Commission’s legislative proposal on single-use plastics is part of the Plastics Strategy presented in January 2018. The main goal of the strategy is to increase plastics recycling, to reduce plastic inputs into the environment, as well as regulating microplastics and biodegradable plastics. The proposal on single-use plastics is the first specific measure developed within the framework of the Plastics Strategy.
Biodegradable plastics: the Commission’s legislative proposal refers to biodegradable plastics specifically in two paragraphs. On the one hand, the hypothetical option is laid out that a standard for biodegradable plastics could be developed certifying materials which are degraded within a period short enough to not cause harm to marine life. Products certified according to such a standard could be exempted from respective product regulations. Furthermore, the Commission will assess the Directive within six years, including an assessment whether scientific and technical progress allows establishing a standard on biodegradability in the marine environment.