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Combat disposable plastic products
28/05/2018 - German Environment Agency

The European Commission has presented a legislative proposal with seven measures to reduce waste at European beaches. The main aim is to reduce the plastic waste most commonly found on European beaches: the ‘top litter items’. These are mainly disposable products such as plastic dishes, cigarette butts and balloon holders.

For the first time, the Commission proposal uses waste as an opportunity to present concrete measures against plastics in the environment at the European level. On the one hand, bans on items such as straws and plastic stirring sticks are being proposed. In addition, the Commission is placing greater emphasis on the responsibility of manufacturers, for instance, to ensure better disposal or provide their products with information that refers to their harmful environmental effects if they are disposed of incorrectly. In addition, awareness-raising measures for dealing with disposable products will be promoted. Demands are also being placed on the product design phase – in future, disposable plastic bottles are to be produced in such a way that the lids remain firmly connected to the bottle in order to avoid their introduction into the environment.

‘Any plastic fork that lands on a beach is one too many. It is therefore very gratifying that the European Commission intends to take concrete measures against littering,’ said Maria Krautzberger, President of the German Environment Agency. Bans alone are not enough. Reusable products should always take preference, and the right incentives must be created.’

From the point of view of the UBA, it is to be welcomed that the European Commission is proposing measures to reduce the introduction of plastic disposable products into the environment on the basis of the most common beach finds. Despite their short useful life, disposable products remain in the (marine) environment for many years due to the longevity of the material and can cause considerable damage to the ecosystems there.

Of particular relevance are the measures proposed by the Commission to raise awareness and provide information on the harmful effects on the environment. One example of this is the labelling of products that are often disposed of improperly in lavatories rather than residual waste, such as wet wipes and other hygiene products.

Furthermore, from an environmental point of view, Article 10 in particular should be positively highlighted. It encourages member states to inform consumers about existing returnable systems – ecologically, this is often the most sensible option.

For some of the products which the Commission intends to ban, there are already plastic-free alternatives. This is true for cotton swabs, for example, where the plastic part has been replaced by paper, disposable tableware made of paper, wood or other materials, and straws for which alternatives exist made of glass, metal or durum wheat semolina. With all these alternatives, however, it should be noted that the question of whether they are more environmentally friendly than the plastic versions must be answered individually.

A clear answer can only be gained by carefully considering each product life cycle. From a life-cycle assessment (LCA) perspective, it is likely that some of the alternative products will perform worse than their plastics counterparts. However, LCAs do not reflect the impact of the introduction plastic into the (marine) environment. LCAs are still the appropriate method to evaluate environmental impacts of product or material alternatives. However, this alone is not sufficient for political decisions regarding the entry of problematic materials into the environment.

To accompany the legislative proposal, the Commission has published an impact assessment analysing the alternatives of each product group proposed to be banned. The assessment will now be examined in depth by the German Environmental Agency.

The legislative proposal contains seven categories of measures, each of which relates to different product groups:

Reduction targets for food containers and beverage cups. Possible measures include reduction targets for the use of these products, or a minimum requirement for the proportion of reusable alternatives;

Bans on the following plastic products: cotton swabs, disposable cutlery, disposable plates, straws, stirring sticks and balloon holders. The use of alternative materials to produce these products will be consistent with the objective of reducing the environmental impact of plastic products, in particular on the marine environment and human health;

Product requirements will be placed on disposable plastic bottles. These bottles will have to be made in such a way that the lids cannot detach from the beverage container during the use phase;

Labelling of wet wipes, panty liners, tampons, tampon applicators and balloons. For these product groups, clearly identifiable labels should be introduced to indicate the negative environmental effects of littering or other improper disposal of these products;

Extended manufacturer responsibility for food containers, films for wrapping food, plastic bottles and their lids, beverage cups and their lids, cigarettes with filters and separately sold filters, wet wipes, balloons and thin and very thin plastic bags. For these product groups, manufacturers will have to pay for the costs of collection, transport and treatment, as well as cleaning costs for marine litter and awareness-raising measures. These measures will also apply to fishing gear. In addition, member states will have to ensure that all fishing gear that has become waste is collected.

Separate collection for disposable beverage bottles made of plastic: member states will have to take the necessary measures to collect and sort 90% of disposable plastic bottles sold in any given year by 2025;

Awareness-raising measures: member states will have to ensure that consumers are aware of existing reusable systems, waste management options and best-practice examples. Furthermore, information will be provided on the environmental impact of littering and other improper waste management practices, in particular on the marine environment.

Background: The European Commission’s legislative proposal on disposable products is part of the EU Plastics Strategy, which was presented in January 2018. The aim of the strategy is to strengthen plastics recycling, to reduce the introduction of plastic into the environment and to regulate microplastics and biodegradable plastics more clearly. The proposal on disposable plastic products is the first concrete measure developed under the EU Plastics Strategy.

Biodegradable plastics: the Commission’s legislative proposal explicitly addresses biodegradable plastics in two places. On the one hand, there is talk of the hypothetical possibility of developing a standard for the certification of biodegradable plastics, which are completely degraded within such a short time that they have no harmful effect on marine life. Products certified to such a standard could be exempted from the corresponding product regulations. It is specified later that the Commission will undertake an evaluation of the Directive after six years, which, among other things, will examine whether scientific and technical progress will make it possible to establish biodegradability in the oceans in the form of a standard.

EU Commission wants to combat disposable plastic products

European Commission information sheet