Single-Use Plastics Directive in the European Union

One of the European Union’s goals in terms of environmental politics is regulating single-use plastic products. Reducing the volume and impact of some plastic products’ environment is a great concern for the EU bodies. Therefore, the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) came into effect in July 2021.

Single-Use Plastic Directive in the European Union

The European Union bodies enacted the SUP Directive in 2019, laying down new obligations for entrepreneurs from Member States concerning the generation of plastic waste and plastic packaging put into circulation in the market.

The full name of the legal act is Directive (EU) 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.

Why do we need the SUP Directive?

Single-use plastics are durable and contribute greatly to long-term pollution. It’s been proven that single-use plastics have detrimental effects on wildlife, marine habitats, and human health. Littering and other inappropriate means of waste disposal resulting in marine litter containing plastic, is a huge issue. The objectives of the SUPD include:

  • preventing and reducing the impact of certain single-use plastic products, products made from oxo-degradable plastic, and fishing gear containing plastic on the environment and on human health
  • promoting the transition to a circular economy, including fostering innovative and sustainable business models, products, and materials, and therefore also contributing to the efficient functioning of the internal market at Union level.

What is the scope of the Single-Use Plastic Directive?

This SUPD applies to:

  • the single-use plastic products listed in the Annex
  • products made from oxo-degradable plastic
  • fishing gear containing plastic.

Some products are banned from entering the Union market, some are subject to additional marking requirements.

What is a single-use plastic product?

A single-use plastic product is defined as a product made (wholly or partly) from plastic and that is not conceived, designed, or placed on the market to accomplish multiple trips or rotations within its life span by being returned to a producer for refill or re-used for the same purpose for which it was conceived.

To put it simply, a single-use plastic product is an item made of plastic or with parts made of plastic designed for disposal after a single use.

What is an oxo-degradable plastic?

Oxo-degradable plastic is plastic that includes additives that, through oxidation, fragment the plastic into micro-fragments or chemically decompose it.

Many products on the market are misleadingly marketed as compostable or biodegradable, but in fact, they are often more damaging to the environment than traditional plastic (without the additives).

What is fishing gear?

Fishing gear is any item or piece of equipment used in fishing or aquaculture to target, capture, or rear marine biological resources or that is floating on the sea surface and deployed to attract and capture such marine biological resources.

Such gear, not properly managed, contributes greatly to marine waste.

10 items addressed by the single-use plastics directive

  • Cotton bud sticks
  • Cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers
  • Balloons and sticks for balloons
  • Food containers
  • Cups for beverages
  • Beverage containers
  • Cigarette butts
  • Plastic bags
  • Packets and wrappers
  • Wet wipes and sanitary items

Ban on single-use plastic products in the EU

Some single-use plastic products are banned in the European Union. EU Member States prohibit the introduction of:

  • cotton bud sticks (with some exceptions)
  • cutlery (forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks)
  • plates
  • straws (with some exceptions)
  • beverage stirrers
  • sticks to be attached to and to support balloons (with some exceptions)
  • some food containers made of expanded polystyrene, i.e. receptacles such as boxes, with or without a cover, used to contain food
  • beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, including their caps and lids
  • cups for beverages made of expanded polystyrene, including their covers and lids.

SUP manufacturers’ and importers’ obligations

Manufacturers and importers need to comply with the relevant laws. For example, the extended producer responsibility (EPR) introduces requirements to finance and organize the collection, treatment, and recycling of plastic waste. According to SUPD, a producer is any natural or legal person established in a Member State that professionally manufactures, fills, sells, or imports products under the SUPD scope.

Manufacturers need to affix a marking to the product/its packaging in the case of:

  • sanitary towels (pads), tampons and tampon applicators
  • wet wipes, i.e. pre-wetted personal care and domestic wipes
  • tobacco products with filters and filters marketed for use in combination with tobacco products
  • cups for beverages.

Moreover, Member States shall lay out laws concerning the obligation of producers of some single-use plastic products to cover at least the following costs:

  • of the awareness-raising measure regarding those products
  • of up litter resulting from those products and the subsequent transport and treatment of that litter
  • of data gathering and reporting.

Manufacturers, importers, sellers, etc., may be penalized if they are not compliant with the SUPD.

Implementation timeline and deadlines

Here are some of the key milestones and deadlines for the Single-Use Plastic Directive (SUPD) 2019/904.

  • By July 3, 2021, the EU countries incorporate the directive’s requirements and regulations into their national legislation.
  • By July 3, 2021, Member States introduce extended producer responsibility schemes (EPR schemes).
  • From July 3, 2021, some SUP products are banned in the EU (such as cotton bud sticks, plastic cutlery, plates, straws, and expanded polystyrene food containers).
  • By July 3, 2021, the EU countries introduce laws regarding standardized labeling for single-use plastic products.
  • By July 3, 2021, Member States implement measures concerning awareness-raising campaigns and providing information to consumers about the environmental impact of single-use plastics.
  • On 4 February 2022, Implementing Decision 2022/162 laying down rules for the calculation, verification and reporting on the reduction in the consumption of single-use plastic food containers and beverage cups came into force.

The Member States should achieve the following plastic reduction targets:

  • by 2025, a 77% separate collection target for plastic bottles (90% by 2029)
  • from 2025, 25% of recycled plastic in PET beverage bottles (30% of all plastic beverage bottles from 2030)

The progress should be recorded from 2022 to 2025.

Why is the Single-Use Plastic Directive important?

There are many environmental benefits of the SUPD. There will be fewer single-use plastic products in circulation, which means less waste (or better-managed waste) and less pollution. When it comes to the manufacturing aspect, there will be fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Another benefit is that natural resources will be better managed.

Although it may come at the expense of some SUP businesses and consumers, it brings opportunities for innovation and market growth in the development of sustainable plastic-free alternatives.