Single-Use Plastics Directive Comes into force

More parts of the European Union's Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) came into force on 3 July 2021, in wide-reaching legislation that seeks to reduce plastic pollution from disposable products.

After evaluating the potential pathways towards reduction, the EU Plastics Strategy passed the SUPD in 2019 in an effort to ‘turn off the tap’ on marine plastic pollution.

Plastic cup on beachIn Europe alone, more than 25 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated every year, yet less than 30 per cent of this waste is collected or recycled.

Plastic waste exports to Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia from EU countries also continued at high levels in 2020.

Marine pollution constitutes 85 per cent of plastic waste.

The SUPD obliges EU member states to ensure manufacturers, producers, retailers, importers and sellers comply with its measures.

More specifically, the SUPD comprises product bans; design requirements; targets for separate plastic recycling collections; Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) obligations; and awareness raising measures.  

Member states have had until 2 July 2021 to transpose and include the provisions of the SUPD into their own laws.

From 3 July 2021, outright bans apply to some single-use plastic items for which non-plastic alternatives are available – cotton-bud sticks (with medical-use exceptions), cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers and balloon sticks are included, as well as containers and cups made from oxo-degradable plastics and expanded polystyrene (EPS).

The SUPD also creates legal precedent for member countries to implement the list and add other items they wish to ban at their own discretion.

The legislation also declares that member states must establish their own EPR schemes by 2021, with producers of single-use plastic goods expected to cover the costs of waste management for their products.

This includes the costs of awareness-raising measures and litter clean-up, transport and treatment.

In terms of these schemes, a target has been set for manufacturers to use 25 per cent recycled content in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles by 2025, and 30 per cent in all plastic beverage bottles by 2030.

New measures also stipulate that by 2024 container caps and lids remain attached to the container during its lifetime, to reduce the caps ending up in the environment as litter and to increase their recycling.

Targets for recycling collection require member states to separately collect 77 per cent of single-use plastic bottles with caps and lids by 2025, with an ultimate target of 90 per cent by 2029.

Given its wide reach and high targets, the directive can be described as a market disruptor.

As a result, the SUPD has accelerated governments' and businesses' discussions about the shift from a linear take-make-waste production model to one that is more circular in nature.

The SUPD is set to place these wider market restrictions on member states when it comes to specific single-use plastic products, as such.

Experts from sustainability consultancy Eunomia say that it will be ‘difficult to impossible’ to achieve the targets set for the production and collection of beverage bottles without a deposit return system (DRS) in place, however.

For example, the European average collection rate for plastic beverage bottles without a deposit is 47 per cent, whereas European deposit systems collect 94 per cent of eligible plastic beverage bottles.

As a result, members of the business community – including Natural Mineral Waters Europe (NMWE) and the Union of European Soft Drinks Associations (UNESDA) – have called for the adoption of DRS across the EU as the most effective tool to achieve the SUPD's 90 per cent collection target.

In May, the European Commission published the guidelines on single-use plastics which aim to ensure the requirements of the SUPD are applied correctly and uniformly across the EU.

For example, only plastic beverage bottles over three litres and reusable plastic beverage bottles are excluded from the scope of the SUPD.

Cardboard or paper-based products to which a plastic coating or lining has been applied is considered as made partly from plastic and falls within the scope of the directive – this includes beverage cartons, which are considered composite beverage packaging.

A definition of reusable products is also provided, whereby a product is reusable if there is a clear intention that the package be reused, reconditioned, cleaned, washed or repaired, while maintaining its ability to perform its intended function.

The guidelines also specify that arrangements should be in place to make reuse possible.

Larissa Copello, Consumption and Production Campaigner at Zero Waste Europe, said of the directive at large: “Half-hearted measures, such as material substitution or cosmetic legislative change, will not allow to achieve a truly circular economy across Europe.

“It is urgent to redesign both products and distribution systems, and decision-makers can drive this systemic change by adopting a combination of measures such as consumption reduction targets, reuse quotas, harmonised packaging formats and deposit return schemes.”

Wolfgang Ringel, Senior Vice President Governmental Affairs, at resource sustainability company TOMRA, said: "The EU Single-Use Plastics Directive is designed to meaningfully reduce single-use plastic waste across member states in a comprehensive manner.

“TOMRA has over 45 years of experience working in deposit return systems, today working in 40 deposit markets, in every part of the value chain.”

"The legislation accelerates a shift in mindsets from governments, businesses and consumers on how society approaches single-use plastic, ensuring more material stays within a closed loop and out of the oceans and environment.”

“When historians look back, the passage of the Single-Use Plastics Directive may be seen as the moment when society finally turned the tide on plastic waste and tipped the scales in favour of a circular economy."

There is concern from some organisations, however, that the strict deadlines of the SUPD are forcing national legislators to rush legislative activity.

Alexandre Dangis, EuPC Managing Director, said: “The Commission should have realised the disruptive impact of the Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive on businesses and how lengthy national legislative processes can be.

“Those changes cannot be done overnight and the fragmentation of the EU single market is now an unavoidable scenario having severe consequences on employment and businesses losses in the EU.”

He continued: “The entire world is still paying the consequences of the outbreak of the pandemic, which, in the past year, has represented the main element of focus and concern both at EU and national level.

“Allowing a shift of the deadline as requested by our industry at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic could have granted the EU Member States enough time to properly consider all the legislative options, work on harmonization and properly exploit the clarifications provided by the Guidelines and the other implementing acts still.”

On what the legislation means for the UK, a British Plastics Federation (BPF) spokesperson said: "The SUP Directive will not apply to most of the UK post Brexit, apart from Northern Ireland.

"Although it is well-intentioned and the plastics industry is keen to help leave the environment in a better state for future generations, we understand some complications remain surrounding its implementation."

"Taking into account industry concerns about various details within the SUP Directive is vital."

"In the UK, consultations in this area are ongoing and the BPF has been providing key information to Defra."

"Devolved administrations also have the right to develop their own legislation in this area, so the way in which the UK will develop similar legislation is still to be determined."

"Plastic plays a key role in reducing carbon emissions, so we remain hopeful a solution will be reached that preserves the many benefits of single-use plastics, while maximising recycling rates, increasing the availability of recycled material and protecting the environment."