How can EU members make good on new single-use plastics law?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Bags, bottles, cans, packaging, ropes, fishing nets, clothing... 60% of the waste that forms a so-called 'carpet' in the Mediterranean's sea bed contains plastic, according to Ifremer's analysis that spans from 1994 to 2017. [Photo: Shutterstock/Rich Carey]

The European Parliament and the Council gave their official green light to the Single-use Plastics Directive on Tuesday morning (21 May). Larissa Copello de Souza explains how the implementation period is a golden opportunity to raise the bar even further.

Larissa Copello de Souza is Zero Waste Europe’s consumption and production campaigner.

Proposed in May last year as part of the European Plastics Strategy, the EU directive to curb single-use plastics was agreed in record time, after just eight monthsNow it only needs to be published in the official journal (expected before the summer), before we enter the transposition phase.

Member states will have two years to implement the new rules into their national legislation. Zero Waste Europe released today a guide to unfold the directive and provide recommendations for the transposition phase.

The measures established under the directive include outright bans, reducing consumption of key single-use plastic, extended producer responsibility (EPR), marking and labelling requirements, awareness raising measures and separate collection, among others.

Although the directive is undoubtedly a significant first step to curb plastic pollution, its effectiveness depends on the implementation by our national governments. The provisions laid down can be, and must be, strengthened.

In fact, reducing overall plastic use, especially single-use plastics, could be a game changer in Europe: it has the potential to create new markets and local jobs, stimulate innovation and provide opportunities for alternative business models, while preserving the natural resources upon which we all depend.

This is a key opportunity for member states to build on this unprecedented piece of legislation and raise the bar even further to develop a resilient economy free of plastic pollution.

To start with, on the reduction of food containers and cups for beverages, there is a lot of room for improvement, as the directive does not set an EU-wide target. Instead, it establishes a vague requirement to achieve an “ambitious and sustained reduction” of those products by 2026.

Such a loose requirement does not provide enough incentive to reduce the consumption of those products, and without precise targets it is hard to measure compliance. Therefore, member states must set national targets and immediately collect data according to the given baseline (2022).

Actually, countries can go even beyond and impose market restrictions on single use food containers and cups. It must be emphasised, however, that where market restrictions are imposed, there must be no exceptions for bio-based or compostable products, as the shift should focus on promoting reusable alternatives and not another single-use material.

This can be done, for instance, by leveraging  local reuse schemes:  the cases of Recircle and the Freiburg Cup, respectively targeting take-away food containers and beverage cups, are great examples of how cities and businesses can prevent single-use plastics waste.

On Extended Producer Responsibility, the directive also leaves a lot of margin for improvement.

Notably, it allows the implementation of certain EPR measures through agreements between industry and authorities, and it establishes a way too long deadline (by 2024) for the implementation of such schemes, which does not reflect the urgency in tackling the single use plastic items addressed under its scope.

Due to the particularly negative environmental impacts of these products, it is important that member states establish EPR schemes as soon as possible and ensure they are set in a proper way, including with eco-modulation of fees, taking into account the durability, reparability, re-usability, recyclability and the presence of hazardous substances, which is essential to incentivise better product design.

Also, it is vital for member states to make producers foot the bill for the clean-up costs associated with their products.

At the moment, the external costs of plastic pollution are being absorbed by local authorities, by private actors such as the tourism and fisheries industries which are strongly affected by marine litter, and even by the goodwill of volunteers.

To give an idea of the situation, in Belgium and the Netherlands removing beach litter costs municipalities approximately €10.4 million per year.

In addition, national governments must ensure full transparency and monitoring of EPR schemes, especially those set up under agreements with industry.

Besides, the rules say member states have to ensure that beverage bottles with a capacity of up to three litres (including their caps and lids) are collected separately for recycling, with a 77% target by 2025, and a 90% target by 2029.

Although this includes an intermediate target, governments should aim for the highest rate while transposing the Directive into their national laws.

Aiming at the lower target could lead to investments in the wrong direction, such as schemes that cannot achieve more than 77% separate collection.

Therefore, member states are encouraged to fill this gap by implementing deposit-return schemes (DRS) at the national level, which is the best tool to achieve the 90% target.

Last but not least, there is no point in having ambitious measures in the legislation if there is no actual enforcement and continuous monitoring of them.

Therefore, it is important that countries ensure strong enforcement of all the measures established under their implementing national legislation, as well as ensure monitoring systems in place to assess the impact of the measures.

Subscribe to our newsletters