As much as 85% of marine litter is plastic. Largely comprising single use items and fishing gear and found on the beaches of Europe, plastic pollution of our seas and oceans was highlighted in shocking technicolour by the famous Blue Planet episode in which Sir David Attenborough examined human impacts on the marine environment.
In an attempt to start to tackle the problem, the European Parliament recently approved a Directive to reduce the impact of certain single use plastic products on the environment. Coming into force once published in the Official Journal, the Directive classifies categories of products and creates an objective for each grouping it makes.
Reinforcing well understood concepts of producer responsibility and the waste hierarchy, the Directive aims to achieve a circular life cycle for plastics. It encourages the retention of value in products and materials for as long as possible, so generating less waste with a view to economic benefits being felt through the reduction of pressure on precious resources and the environment. “Plastic products should be manufactured taking into account their entire lifespan. The design of plastic products should always take into account the production and use phase and the reusability and recyclability of the product” (recitals to the Directive).
Which products are covered?
Aimed at single use plastics, the Directive defines these as products, “made wholly or partly from plastic and…not conceived, designed or placed on the market to accomplish, within its lifespan, multiple trips or rotations by being returned to a producer for refill or reused for the same purpose for which it was conceived”.
The Directive sets out eight objectives, identifying which products are to be caught by each of its requirements as follows:-
- Complete ban: Member States are to prohibit the placing on the market of the products listed and those made from oxo-degradable plastic. This applies to cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks and polystyrene food trays, cups and beverage containers.
- Consumption reduction: Member States are to take necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory measures to achieve an ambitious and sustained reduction in the consumption of drinks cups (including covers and lids) and take away food containers. Within two years, Member States are to publish the measures they have adopted before integrating them. An ongoing requirement to monitor and report on the effects on the market is also included.
- Product design: drinks bottles (including caps and lids) and composite beverage packaging can only be placed on the market if those caps and lids remain attached to the product during intended use.
- Product design: from 2025 PET bottles must contain at least 25% recycled plastic and at least 30% from 2030.
- Product labelling: sanitary towels, tampons and applicators, wet wipes, drinks cups and tobacco products with filters must bear a conspicuous and clearly legible and indelible marking on the packaging or on the product itself informing consumers of the appropriate waste management or disposal options in line with the waste hierarchy, the presence of plastics in the product and the resulting negative impact of littering or inappropriate disposal on the environment.
- Extended Producer Responsibility: must be established for the listed products with producers to cover the costs, which include the costs of awareness raising measures; waste collection for products discarded in public collection systems; and cleaning up resulting litter from the products. This applies to take away food containers, flexible packaging materials used for takeaway food, drinks bottles (including caps and lids), composite beverage packaging and drinks cups.
- Separate collection: Members States are to take necessary measures to ensure separate collection for recycling of drinks bottles (including caps and lids) and composite beverage packaging. This includes a 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles by 2029 (77% by 2025). This may also include the creation of deposit refund schemes or separate collection targets for the extended producer responsibility schemes.
- Awareness raising: an obligation to inform consumers and incentivise responsible behaviour on their part to reduce litter from single use plastic products. For example providing details of the availability of re-usable alternatives, re-use systems and waste management options; the impact of littering and other inappropriate disposal on the environment; and the impact of inappropriate disposal on the sewer network. This applies to take away food containers, flexible packaging materials used for takeaway food, drinks bottles (including caps and lids), composite beverage packaging, drinks cups, tobacco products with filters and filters marketed for such use, wet wipes (personal care and domestic), balloons for non-industrial uses, lightweight carrier bags and sanitary towels, tampons and tampon applicators.
Hoping to foster a swift change in consumer behaviour, akin to that seen following the 2015 Directive on plastic bags, the EU is proud of the changes proposed and its direction of environmental travel. Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans commented, “Europe is setting new and ambitious standards, paving the way for the rest of the world”.
When will this happen?
Whilst the measures are legally two years away from formally biting, businesses would be well advised to consider their application now. Whilst the future of Brexit remains unknown, there is every chance that the UK will have to implement these rules if there is an extended transition period following departure from the EU. Even absent that, DEFRA has been eager to push its own green credentials, with Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove keen to champion the UK’s commitment to reducing levels of single use plastic.
Perhaps more tellingly however, research by Waitrose found that 88% of people who saw the Blue Planet episode changed their behaviours as a result of what they had seen. There can be no question that as a buying public, we are becoming more demanding of suppliers in all aspects of their corporate social responsibility engagements; and this may be no different.