Single-use plastics: EU announces new rules for ocean clean-up

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29 May 2018 --- The European Commission has announced new rules to combat increasing levels of plastic pollution in the oceans. The EU-wide rules aim to target the 10 highest polluting single-use products, which together constitute 70 percent of all marine litter items.

The news rules apply different measures to different products. Where alternatives are readily available and affordable, single-use plastic products will be banned from the market. For products without straight-forward alternatives, the focus is on limiting their use through a national reduction in consumption; design and labeling requirements and waste management/clean-up obligations for producers. Together, the new rules will put Europe ahead of the curve on an issue with global implications.

Click to EnlargeFirst Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development says: "This Commission promised to be big on the big issues and leave the rest to Member States. Plastic waste is undeniably a big issue and Europeans need to act together to tackle this problem because plastic waste ends up in our air, our soil, our oceans, and in our food. Today's proposals will reduce single-use plastics on our supermarket shelves through a range of measures. We will ban some of these items, and substitute them with cleaner alternatives so people can still use their favorite products."

Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, adds: "Plastic can be fantastic, but we need to use it more responsibly. Single-use plastics are not a smart economic or environmental choice, and today's proposals will help business and consumers to move towards sustainable alternatives. This is an opportunity for Europe to lead the way, creating products that the world will demand for decades to come, and extracting more economic value from our precious and limited resources. Our collection target for plastic bottles will also help to generate the necessary volumes for a thriving plastic recycling industry."

According to the EU, plastics make up 85 percent of marine litter across the world. Plastics are even reaching people's lungs and dinner tables, with microplastics in the air, water and food having an unknown impact on their health. Recently, microplastics were discovered in 11 leading brand water products, while record levels of microplastics have been discovered in the Arctic ice.

Tackling the plastics problem is a must and it can bring new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and job creation. Companies will be given a competitive edge: having one set of rules for the whole EU market will create a springboard for European companies to develop economies of scale and be more competitive in the booming global marketplace for sustainable products. By setting up re-use systems (such as deposit-refund schemes), companies can ensure a stable supply of high-quality material. In other cases, the incentive to look for more sustainable solutions can give companies the technological lead over global competitors.

Different measures for different products
After addressing plastic bags in 2015, 72 percent of Europeans said they have cut down on their use of plastic bags (Eurobarometer). The EU is now turning its attention to the 10 single-use plastic products and fishing gear that together account for 70 percent of the marine litter in Europe. The new rules will introduce:
•    Plastic ban in certain products: Where alternatives are readily available and affordable, single-use plastic products will be banned from the market. The ban will apply to plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons which will all have to be made exclusively from more sustainable materials instead. Single-use drinks containers made with plastic will only be allowed on the market if their caps and lids remain attached;
•    Consumption reduction targets: Member States will have to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drinks cups. They can do so by setting national reduction targets, making alternative products available at the point of sale, or ensuring that single-use plastic products cannot be provided free of charge;
•    Obligations for producers: Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers (such as for crisps and sweets), drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters (such as cigarette butts), wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags. The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products;
•    Collection targets: Member States will be obliged to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example through deposit refund schemes;
•    Labeling Requirements: Certain products will require a clear and standardized labeling which indicates how waste should be disposed, the negative environmental impact of the product, and the presence of plastics in the products. This will apply to sanitary towels, wet wipes and balloons;
•    Awareness-raising measures: Member States will be obliged to raise consumers' awareness about the negative impact of littering of single-use plastics and fishing gear as well as about the available re-use systems and waste management options for all these products.
•    For fishing gear, which accounts for 27 percent of all beach litter, the Commission aims to complete the existing policy framework with producer responsibility schemes for fishing gear containing plastic. Producers of plastic fishing gear will be required to cover the costs of waste collection from port reception facilities and its transport and treatment. They will also cover the costs of awareness-raising measures. Details on the new rules for fishing gear are available here.Click to Enlarge

Response from Rethink Plastic
Environmental campaigner groups have generally responded positively to the new EU rules. However, campaigners, including Rethink Plastic, have voiced concern that the legislation fails to set specific EU-wide reduction targets for food containers and beverage cups, with a promise to look into this possibility only after a lengthy six years after transposition (circa 2027). This could result in countries claiming they are taking the necessary steps as long as any reduction is achieved, regardless of how small.

Speaking on behalf of Rethink Plastic, Sarah Baulch explains: "Given the urgency and scale of the problem, the lack of specific reduction targets for Member States is alarming. We call on the European Parliament and EU Ministers to put in place such targets and set a shorter review period to ensure an effective and swift move beyond single-use plastics."

Next Steps
The Commission's proposals will now go to the European Parliament and Council for adoption. The Commission urges the other institutions to treat this as a priority file, and to deliver tangible results for Europeans before the elections in May 2019.

Edited by Joshua Poole

To contact our editorial team please email us at editorial@cnsmedia.com

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