UPDATED Will the European parliament save our seas from plastic today?

UPDATED Will the European parliament save our seas from plastic today?

Today, the European Parliament votes on the European Single-Use Plastics Directive targeting the 10 single-use plastic products most often found at Europe's beaches and seas. As an environmental NGO, we support the directive. We identify 5 key points to make it effective in the battle against the plastic soup.

24 oktober 2018 Suze Govers

Live stream of the Plenary

On October 10, the European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public health and Food Safety (ENVI) was the first to suggest amendments to the Commission’s draft proposal of European Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUP Directive). Today, October 23, this text will be voted on by all Members of Parliament in the plenary voting.

We think the SUP Directive is a vital addition to the recently adopted waste directives and the Plastics Strategy. Litter is strongly connected to the way products are designed, put on the market, and collected. Hence, European action is both justified and necessary. We are glad to see that the SUP Directive includes, but also moves beyond initiatives to raise awareness. The Directive aims rightly to tackle litter at its source, at the level of the product and the producer.

In safeguarding the ambition and intended environmental impact of the Directive, the following 5 subjects are key issues.

 

 

1. Producers should pay the clean up costs

Following the reasoning that litter should be tackled at the level of the product and producer, article 8 on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a core part of the Commission’s proposal of Directive, which has been supported by ENVI.

It states that producers will cover the costs of “the collection of waste consisting of [food containers, packets and wrappers, beverage containers, beverage cups, tobacco filter products, wet wipes, balloons and lightweight plastic carrier bags] and its subsequent transport and treatment, including the costs to clean up litter and the costs of awareness raising measures”.

Currently, there is no EPR in place, so the producers don’t pay for the cleaning up of litter. This carries two important consequences. First, the costs for cleaning up litter are passed on to society, as they are paid by local authorities and thus tax payers. This externalising of costs is fundamentally unfair. Secondly, making municipalities and volunteers responsible for litter, means measures to tackle litter are mostly limited to cleaning up, which does not solve the litter problem.

True EPR means internalising negative externalities and thus charging the costs for cleaning up to the producer. In demanding so, article 8 prevents that cleaning up costs will be passed on to the community any longer. Furthermore, by charging producers with the bill, it will drive the producers to improve their efforts on litter prevention – for example by designing less litter-prone products or setting up more effective collection systems – as this will reduce the clean up costs that they will pay. EPR is therefore a very effective measure to tackle litter at the source.

This reasoning applies to all items currently discussed in light of article 8 of the Directive, whether it is packaging, such as a plastic bottle or a food container, or a non-packaging product like cigarette filters.

The industry has been trying to avoid this extended producer responsibility for years, through heavy lobbying efforts, as recently documented by French investigation program Cash Investigation and the Corporate Europe Observatory.

 

2. The time to act is now

The plastic soup in our oceans reminds us of the urgency of the problem that we face. To tackle this litter problem, the ENVI Committee has mostly tried to uphold the ambitions of the Commission proposal. However, we also hear voices being raised asking for a longer transition period.

The European People’s Party (EPP), for example, suggests that all small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are granted a 2-year derogation for certain measures. EPP demands that SMEs should get two years extra time to comply with (a) the prohibition to place certain products on the market (b) the tethered caps-to-bottle product requirement and (c) marking requirements to inform consumers on the effects of inappropriate disposal of waste. Given the fact that 99% of businesses in the EU are SMEs, such a derogation will imply that almost all businesses are exempted from the established timeline. Especially regarding article 5, in which the Commission proposes to ban certain products from the EU market, the ambition and intended environmental impact of the Directive would almost be nullified by this proposed exemption.

Imagine 99% of all businesses still purchasing SUP items such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers. This will sustain not only the production of these single-use plastic items, but also the sales or even handing out for free of these products – which the Commission is aiming to ban from the EU market because they are contributing largely to the plastic soup and we have readily available alternatives. This exemption would also largely distort the level playing field on the EU market. Finally, if anything, SMEs will be able to adapt swiftly to the measures in the Directive, as they are unlikely to already have purchased plastic straws and beverage stirrers for a period of nine years.

 

3. Saving the environment from plastic bottles

In article 9, the EU Commission demands a 90% separate collection target of single-use plastic bottles by 2025. This target will help to reduce the amount of littered bottles in the environment in an effective way, because it invites Member States to strive for the most successful collection systems.

At Recycling Netwerk Benelux, we are happy with this target and see no ground whatsoever to water it down, not in percentage nor in the timeline set out, for the following reasons.

It is a perfectly feasible target. Indeed, several EU countries, already meet this goal of 90% separate collection of plastic bottles, because they have implemented a deposit on PET-bottles. The return rates for PET-plastic in 2014 for the Netherlands, Norway and Germany were, respectively, 95%, 95.4% and 98%. A 90% separate collection is thus easy to achieve for every Member State, simply by implementing a deposit-refund scheme.

Furthermore, this instrument realizes high collection percentages in a considerably short period of time. The country to most recently implement a deposit program was Lithuania: they did so in February 2016, and in that same year, already achieved a total return rate of 74%. By the end of 2017, they reached a return rate of 91.9%.

 

4. Cap-to-bottle is an easy and effective measure

The Commission suggested that caps and lids remain attached to the bottle, as these caps cause a great litter problem in their own right. However, a leaked lobby letter shows that Coca-Cola, Danone, Nestle and Pepsico are resisting this cap-to-bottle measure. They are aiming for an undue delay, which is a recurrent tactic of the beverage industry to, in the end, escape such regulations at all.

There is no justification to delay this measure or doubt its environmental impact. The technology to affix plastic caps to their bottles is simple and available. It is convenient for the consumer and doesn’t harm business interests. The earlier decision to attach lids to cans, has proven that this method effectively prevents litter.

Plastic bottle caps are amongst the plastic objects most frequently found on European beaches. Measures that prevent such caps being littered, are urgent for the environment. These tethered caps are an effective way to decrease marine litter, especially in combination with article 9 which sets the 90% separate collection target for single-use plastic bottles. We believe this is a good example of creating less litter prone products by means of smart design.

 

5. Limiting the scope will sustain the plastic soup

The scope of the Directive as established by the Commission and supported by ENVI, encompasses single-use plastics in a very broad sense. So-called biodegradable and compostable plastics are also subject to the measures in the Directive, as well as products made only partially of plastic or that only have a plastic lining, such as Tetra Pak.

This is a good thing, as it prevents a shift from producing disposable items made from ‘classic’ plastic to single-use products made from any of these materials above. When these materials would fall outside the scope of the Directive, this is exactly what is expected to happen. This wouldn’t serve as a solution for the ocean pollution that we face for several reasons.

The objective of this Directive is to reduce marine litter and there is no biodegradable plastic that can biodegrade in all marine environments: it simply breaks down in smaller pieces, the so-called microplastics. Furthermore, any single-use item made up of or containing plastic will still be short-lived and non-reusable plastics. They will still leak into the environment and cause harm to nature and animals. Instead, the Directive should stimulate the producers and consumers to move away from single-use items and towards reusable alternatives, in line with the EU waste hierarchy and circular economy targets. And not move from one single-use product to another.

Exemptions for biodegradable or compostable plastics, or agreeing to condone single-use plastics in so-called ‘closed loop systems’ would only result in this Directive fighting marine litter with one hand – while still allowing single-use plastics to be thrown in our oceans by the other.

 

The ENVI Committee made a clear effort to protect our seas from litter – will the plenary EU Parliament follow?

In general, we can say that the ENVI committee has tried to uphold the ambitions of the Commission.

Today on 23 October, their version of the Directive (a compromise text) will be voted on by all Members of Parliament in the plenary voting (live stream here from 12:00 – 14:00 hrs).

As an environmental NGO, we think that the 5 mentioned key points are crucial in order to have the desired impact with the SUP Directive: to reduce plastic litter, fight the plastic soup and assure a healthy and clean environment for the future.