Loopholes in legislation could undermine EU Single-Use Plastic Directive, says report

Loopholes in the EU’s Single Use Plastic (SUP) Directive providing possible exemptions for natural polymers could undermine the legislation’s aim to reduce the environmental impact of single-use products, according to a new report from Eunomia Research and Consulting.

The report, entitled ‘What is Plastic? A Summary Report Exploring the Potential for Certain Materials to be Exempted from the Single Use Plastics Directive’ and launched at an event in Brussels on Tuesday (22 January) alongside Reloop Platform, claims that the substitution of natural polymers for plastic to avoid the regulations of the SUP Directive could increase environmental harm.

A wet wipe.
The SUP Directive was voted through by MEPs in March 2019 and entered into force in June 2019 and will prevent the sale of 10 of the most polluting single-use plastic products on the EU market where alternatives exist.

Currently, the SUP Directive, which states that ‘natural polymers that have not been chemically modified’ and have less impact on the environment should be exempted from the definition of plastic contained in the Directive and should not fall under the Directives regulations.

Eunomia’s report focused on the man-made cellulosic fibres lyocell and viscose, natural polymers that make effective substitutes to synthetic polymers, often found in wet wipes, which are often flushed down the toilet causing blockages and the release of plastic into the environment. Wet wipes have been proposed by the Directive as plastic products that should fall under the single-use regulations.

According to the report, current standards and frameworks ‘cannot provide confidence that [natural polymer] materials that pass into the marine environment will not have a similarly detrimental impact as a synthetic plastic product’, and as such there is ‘no justification on environmental grounds for an exemption for lyocell or viscose under the SUP Directive’.

It is argued that increased use of natural polymers in items such as wet wipes could be driven by their exemption from the Directive’s regulations as manufacturers seek to minimise costs and to greenwash their products, exploiting consumers’ desires to eschew plastic and choose ‘environmentally-benign’ alternatives. This could in turn lead to the increased consumption and flushing of wet wipes made from these materials as consumers believe they will have a minimal environmental impact.

As a result, the report calls for a restrictive and precautionary approach to exemption, allowing only natural polymers that are ‘proven to have characteristics in terms of a persistence in the environment that are so substantially different to plastics’.

A ‘lost opportunity’

Commenting on the findings, Joe Papineschi, Director at Eunomia and lead author of the report, said: “The SUP Directive was a flagship achievement of the previous European Commission. It would be both disappointing and a lost opportunity to address problems associated with single-use plastic items if those placing single-use products on the market were able to evade the core goals of the Directive as a result of the way that exemptions are specified. It is crucial that producers take fuller responsibility for the impact that their products have on the environment – ensuring that legislation is as watertight as possible is the first step towards that goal.”

Zero Waste Europe, which produced a policy briefing with Reloop on the loopholes in the SUP Directive, has echoed Eunomia’s recommendations, also calling for the broadening of the scope of the Directive to include single-use applications in general and create a legislative framework to provide for a transition from single-use to durable and efficient reuse systems.

Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director of Zero Waste Europe, said: “In order to avoid material substitution and obtain a real impact on the economy and the environment in the Circular Economy Action Plan, the Commission should implement an approach to products and waste that is not only material specific but also system oriented. This is only possible by going beyond the impacts of just single-use plastic to include all single-use products, and creating a legislative framework for reuse operations that provides for an organised transition from single-use applications towards durable, efficient systems.”

Clarissa Morawski, CEO and co-founder of Reloop, added: ”It is also imperative that member states introduce in national law, a precautionary approach to the exemption of materials or products considered not to be single-use plastic, with a high burden of proof to be applied.”

You can view the report, ‘What is Plastic? A Summary Report Exploring the Potential for Certain Materials to be Exempted from the Single Use Plastics Directive’, on the Eunomia website.

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