EU to legislate on single-use plastics by summer

EU-wide legislation on single-use plastic is on the cards for this summer, according to comments by the European Commission’s Vice President Frans Timmermans.

Last week (23 February), Environment Secretary Michael Gove told Sky News: “I want to do everything we can to restrict the use of plastic straws and we're exploring at the moment if we can ban them." He then went on to add that membership of the EU could prove a hindrance to this goal: “There is some concern that EU laws mean that we can’t ban straws at moment, but I'm doing everything I can to ensure that we end this scourge and I hope to make an announcement shortly.”

EU to legislate on single-use plastics by summer
Timmermans quickly responded on Twitter to say that the EU was ‘one step ahead’ of Gove, tweeting to the Secretary: ‘EU legislation on single-use plastics coming before the summer. Maybe you can align with us?’

Timmermans’ comments seem to suggest Gove’s concerns are unfounded, despite fears raised elsewhere that a ban on specific plastic products could impinge on the central EU principle of the free movement of goods. The French government’s ban on disposable plastic plates and cutlery could face legal action and the prospect of repeal after Pack2Go, an organisation representing European packaging manufacturers, claimed that the ban violated EU rules. Concerns have also been raised in Scotland, with the Scottish government this month announcing plans for a ban on straws by the end of 2019.

It appears that EU law is now following the prevailing wind: towards a form of single-use plastics ban. Whether the EU has plans specific to the now much-maligned plastic straw remains to be seen; the new European Plastics Strategy, launched in January as part of the wider Circular Economy Package designed to move Europe to a more resource efficient future, contains no mention of the product other than in the wider context of addressing single-use plastic waste.

However, plastic straws - among the top 10 items collected on the world’s beaches each year - have become a symbol for the wider plastics problem, and Timmermans himself spoke specifically on straws when announcing the strategy, saying: “How many millions of straws do we use every day across Europe? I would have people not use plastic straws anymore. It only took me once to explain to my children. And now... they go looking for paper straws, or don’t use straws at all. It is an issue of mentality.”

Plastics actions

As well as developing measures to address single-use plastics and marine litter (a public consultation on which closed on 12 February), the European strategy will see new rules in development to ensure all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2030, in addition to focusing on reforming the producer responsibility system, which sets out how much producers pay towards the recycling of their products.

In the UK, the government has in the past expressed a preference for voluntary measures by industry to reduce waste, but promises of legislative action regarding single-use plastic having been coming thick and fast over the past year, with plastics emerging as a specific focus of the 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP), launched in January.

The Plan promises to extend the five pence plastic bag charge to all retailers in England and commits the UK to zero ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, as well as announcing a new partnership between the Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) and the circular economy advocacy group the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, aiming to tackle plastic pollution through a transformation of the UK plastics industry from a linear to a circular model.

Previous to this, Gove launched a call for evidence on an English deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles in October 2017, and the following month Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced the possibility of a tax on single-use plastics, to be explored in a further call for evidence this year.

The concept of a tax was welcomed by campaign groups, while engendering more of amixed response from the industry, with calls for a wider and more comprehensive strategy from SUEZ CEO David Palmer-Jones, while the British Plastics Federation decried the idea as “populist”, saying: “A tax that ultimately increases costs for the consumer does not provide a viable solution to today’s issues - the UK accounts for only 0.2 per cent of marine litter and the plastic bag charge has not reduced general littering.

“Instead, the UK needs a strategy to increase on-the-go recycling, a system enabling clear national communications and the enforcement of fines to make it universally understood that littering is unacceptable and irresponsible.”

Amidst all the noise about single-use plastics, Hammond’s call for evidence has yet to materialise, something criticised by Mary Creagh, Chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, in a letter to Hammond published last week (22 February). Creagh commented: “The government has talked the talk on plastics pollution, but it has been too slow to walk the walk.”

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