More than a year has passed since the European Parliament took its final decision on the proposal for a Directive on reducing the impact of certain plastic products on the environment (the ‘Single Use Plastics (SUP) Directive’).
This text was adopted with an overwhelming majority, with 560 votes in favour. Only 35 MEPs voted against the report, among them were the Italian Lega. Yet regardless of our different political beliefs, plastic pollution is unfortunately an undeniable reality.
The primary objective of the SUP Directive is to prevent and reduce the impact of the ten most-polluting single-use plastic products on the aquatic environment. With this proposal, the Commission was addressing a gap between the existing theory of EU environmental law and the actual problem of marine litter, which we can see for ourselves.
When you know that in the EU 80-85 percent of beach litter is plastic, you cannot stand idly by. Both the Parliament and the Council answered this call collaboratively. Naturally, some of our ideas were not included in the final report, such as the request for marking requirements for the presence of hazardous chemicals or the inclusion of reduction targets for beverage bottles.
However, a valid text emerged, nevertheless. Member States have until 3 July 2021 to transpose the legislation into domestic law and until 2023-2024 to establish extended producer responsibility schemes for some single-use plastic products, such as lightweight plastic carrier bags or tobacco products with filters.
“When you know that in the EU 80- 85 percent of beach litter is plastic, you cannot stand idly by”
Despite high initial expectations, there has been little progress to date. With the shock from the pandemic and the economic recovery required, it seems national governments are working in silos and managing one thing at the time, without seeing the big picture. Despite attempts at postponing the implementation of the Directive, it is needed more urgently than ever.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, littering from single-use plastics has seen a dramatic resurgence due to the use of single-use personal protective equipment. Above all, however, it is a lack of civic and environmental education for many.
Restaurants are again using single-use plastic cutlery, plates and cups under the scientifically unfounded assumption that plastics are the most hygienic material for protection against the virus. It is of vital importance that consumers and users are fully informed of the implications and risks of their daily choices, the available options and alternatives and the difference between a solid scientific fact and stakeholders’ moves.
The SUP Directive rightly obliges Member States to take awareness-raising measures to incentivise responsible consumer behaviour. I consider citizens’ involvement in protecting their own environment and health a conditio sine qua non for any successful policy.
We need to bring two important messages to both the people and the institutions. First, plastics arise from fossil fuels. If we want to fight climate change, we need to break free from oil consumption. In order to do so, we should be aware that more than 16 percent of global oil demand goes into petrochemicals, and a big part of that into single-use plastics.
Virgin plastics are always cheaper and easier to make and will continue to be so as long as we keep subsidising fossil fuels. Oil and gas companies have spent the past few decades telling us that we needed more and more plastics.
Now they are investing billions into recycling them. Which is another way of promoting the product or - alternatively - to distract us from the real problem: their abnormal quantity in our everyday lives. In the meantime, industry keeps producing plastics while recycling part of them; plastics keep finding their way to landfill or incineration, and it keeps ending up in our oceans.
Moreover, recycled plastics degrade and contaminate with each cycle. This brings me to my second point. As underlined by the Parliament, “recycling should not justify the perpetuation of the use of hazardous legacy substances”.
Some everyday products contain toxic substances or endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as bisphenols in plastic bottles, the restrictions on the use of which the European Chemical Agency has yet to reach a conclusion. We should fight for a drastic reduction of our exposure to hazardous chemicals, starting by banning the use of substances of very high concern in food contact materials.
The proposal for restricting intentionally added microplastics should be adopted as soon as possible. Finally, the objectives of the SUP Directive could benefit from the inclusion of the correct preventive measures in the soon-to-be-presented Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.
The sustainability challenge for plastics is a complicated one. All the pieces should come together into a new consumption culture based on waste prevention, moving away from fossil fuels and toxic chemicals with the collaboration of each of us.