EU nails rapid-fire deal on single-use plastics

Commission VP Frans Timmermans (C) attends an event organised by activists in November called "slaying the plastic pollution monster". [Rethink Plastic]

Negotiators of the European Parliament, Council and Commission struck a provisional agreement early Wednesday morning (19 December) on banning single-use plastic products like cutlery and food containers, in what is one of the most quickly finalised proposals in recent EU memory.

EU negotiators signed off on measures that include bans on single-use plastic plates, cutlery, expanded polystyrene food containers, beverage cups, balloon sticks, straws and cotton bud sticks.

The provisional agreement also means that manufacturers will have to pay for waste management and clean-up of single-use items, most notably cigarette butts.

Filters contain small traces of plastic and are the most littered item in the world, with trillions discarded annually. Producers will now be subject to so-called extended producer responsibility schemes (EPRs) and will have to pay for collection points in “common litter hotspots”.

MEPs vote to turn ‘plastic wastelands into fields of gold’

European lawmakers overwhelmingly backed an advisory report on the EU’s landmark plastics strategy on Thursday (13 September). It calls on the European Commission to ban certain types of micro-plastics by 2020.

NGO Recycling Netwerk Benelux said the new state-of-play “is more fair than the current situation, where local authorities and thus taxpayers pay the bill”.

The deal marks a rapid legislative turnaround for the single-use plastics proposal, which the European Commission only announced at the beginning of the year as part of its landmark Plastics Strategy.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who had taken a personal interest in the file, “warmly welcomed” the agreement and said that it shows Europe is “the global leader in tackling plastic marine litter”.

His EU executive colleague, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella added that if “one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast. So I am happy […] with the agreement.”

Lead MEP Frédérique Ries (ALDE) said in an early morning tweet that “after 12 hours 30 minutes of negotiations” the new rules have “no derogations” and allow Europe to “write the music, the words and set the tempo”.

MEPs crank up crusade against single-use plastics

MEPs moved on Wednesday (24 October) to ban widely-used, throw-away plastics such as straws, bags and cotton buds, putting the burden on manufacturers to recycle more in an effort to clear up ocean pollution.

The new measures also impose an EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) on fishing gear, one of the least obvious but biggest contributors to marine litter, and EU capitals will have to monitor collection rates and set national targets.

Although negotiators were able to agree on those points, as well as a 30% recycled content in beverage bottles target for 2030, compromises had to be made.

As such, there is no binding EU-wide target to reduce the consumption of food containers and cups, although the Parliament had pushed for a specific goal. Instead, countries will have to “significantly reduce” their output.

In addition, a 90% collection target for plastic bottles was delayed by four years from 2025 to 2029. However, there is now a 77% midway benchmark for 2025 instead.

Member states had voiced concerns that the proposed 2025 goal was far too ambitious, although examples of deposit return schemes, which reward consumers for bringing back their empty containers, have shown return rates of more than 90% within a short period.

After lobbying by the drinks industry, an obligation to ensure that plastic caps remain attached to containers was also pushed back from 2021 to 2024.

Drinks giants rail against EU bottle cap plan

Multinationals Coca Cola, Danone, Nestlé and PepsiCo want to improve existing recycling systems rather than invest in new bottle designs with attached caps, which is the EU’s preferred way of curbing plastic waste.

Activist Delphine Lévi Alvarès welcomed the new rules, calling them a “significant first blow to the plastic pollution monster” but warned that “their impact depends on the implementation by our national governments who must immediately adopt ambitious targets”.

Greenpeace EU’s Kevin Stairs added that “there’s a risk that some plastic producers making money from this throwaway culture could be let off the hook”.

The proposal’s rapid progression through the EU’s legislative machine may continue on Thursday (20 December) when environment ministers meet in Brussels. The Parliament will also have to sign off on the deal, which is expected to come into force in 2021.

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