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Understanding the EU Single-use plastic Directive

Background – plastic pollution

In Europe, around 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year and less than 30% of such waste is collected or recycled. The rest of plastic waste, especially single-use plastics like cups, straws, bottles, or food packaging accumulates in the environment and often ends up in the ocean.

As a part of the EU Plastic Strategy, European Parliament created a Single-use Plastic Directive to tackle marine litter coming from single-use plastic products most often found on European beaches, together with fishing gear and oxo-degradable plastics.

Single-use plastic Directive – what does it cover?

The Directive promotes circular approaches that give priority to sustainable and non-toxic, reusable products and reuse systems, aiming to reduce the quantity of waste generated. It doesn’t tackle all streams of plastic products; therefore, which plastics are actually covered?

The Directive applies to plastic products that are meant to be used only once, to products made from oxo-degradable plastic (plastic that degrades into smaller pieces) and to fishing gear containing plastic. It also covers composite materials, for example, paper cups with a plastic lining. It is important to mention that single-use plastics manufactured from bio-based substances or biodegradable plastics are also part of this Directive and they shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to fossil-based plastics.

Depending on the existence of suitable alternatives, the use of single-use plastics should be reduced, or placing them on the market should be prohibited.

For products without suitable alternatives, consumption should be reduced by for example setting national consumption reduction targets. Single-use products in this category are cups for beverages (with covers and lids) and food containers (for example boxes).

For single-use products that have suitable, affordable alternatives, placing them on the market should be prohibited. Those products include cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers, sticks attached to balloons (except for professional uses), food containers made of expanded polystyrene, beverage containers and cups for beverages made of expanded polystyrene, including their caps and lids.

Another category is beverage containers up to 3 liters, such as bottles and composite containers (for example used for beer, juices or milk). Those single-use plastic products can be placed on the market only if the caps and lids are attached to the container during the intended use phase.

The Directive distinguishes one more category of single-use products, which need to be clearly marked when put on the market to inform the consumer of appropriate disposal and the negative impact of littering. Those are sanitary pads, tampons, wet wipes, tobacco products, and cups for beverages.

There are also additional requirements for producers of single-use plastics. The recycled content in PET bottles needs to reach a specific level and the collection rates for plastic bottles need to be increased. The extended producer responsibility includes covering costs of awareness-raising measures and waste collection of single-use plastic.

Implications for the EU countries

The deadline for implementation of laws and regulations by the EU Member States is July 2021, which is 2 years after the Directive came into force. However, deadlines for the particular action points may be different, for example for bottle collection rates and PET recycled content ratio.

The exact measures taken to comply with the requirements are not determined and depend on the individual countries. Since the interpretation of the Directive can be troublesome, the Commission is planning to release an additional document with guidelines regarding the single-use plastic products falling under the Directive and the available substitutes.

Even though the plastic pollution crisis goes much beyond the presented list of products, the Single-use Plastic Directive is a first step towards solving the problem. The national legislation resulting from it, will create opportunities to reduce overall plastic use and raise public awareness of more sustainable alternatives.


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EU Single-use plastic Directive

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