Plastic waste on a beach

Legal briefing: A clear directive on plastics

The EU has been busy changing the law on plastic waste. Will the UK take note?
17 October 2019 , Rhian Greaves

Amid the political Brexit storm, it’s easy to forget that the EU is quietly getting on with business as usual.

Environmentally speaking, there has been a positive development in the legislative landscape. The EU, armed with research into the waste washed up on the continent’s beaches, has approved a directive that aims to achieve a circular life cycle for plastics.

The directive encourages the retention of value in products and materials for as long as possible, generating less waste and producing economic benefits by reducing pressure on precious resources and the environment.

It states: “Plastic products should be manufactured taking into account their entire lifespan. The design … should always take into account the production and use phase, and the reusability and recyclability, of the product.”

The directive creates a range of measures to limit the environmental impact of single-use plastics. Some are to be banned entirely: cotton bud sticks, polystyrene food trays and drinking straws for example. Others are to be reduced in number, including drinks cups and takeaway food containers. The directive calls for design changes, such as caps to remain attached to bottles during use, and for bottles to contain at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025.

There is also a package of producer responsibility measures, including separate collection schemes (with 90% of plastic bottles to be collected separately by 2029) and financial investment to cover awareness raising measures, waste collection and clean-up costs.

The EU is proud of the changes. Commission first vice president Frans Timmermans said: “Europe is setting new and ambitious standards, paving the way for the rest of the world.”

Despite the directive’s clear deadlines, the UK has yet to begin consultation on implementation, perhaps no surprise given the current Brexit impasse. Whether and how the law will apply here is uncertain. Former environment secretary Michael Gove was keen to champion the UK’s pledge to reducing levels of single-use plastic. Pressure groups have been quick to remind his successors, Theresa Villiers and subsequently Zac Goldsmith, of the commitments already made.

Of course, we have to take care that in demonising plastic we do not create other harmful waste streams. But the directive’s impact should, in due course, be easy to measure.

We have already seen a real appetite for more responsible producer and consumer behaviour. Research for Waitrose found that 88% of people who saw Blue Planet II changed their behaviour as a result. And there can be no question that we are becoming more demanding of suppliers in our quest for sustainability.

However, the pace of change is not swift enough for some. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is calling for the directive to be revised to ban all plastic bottles by 2027.

The ECI has a year to collect one million statements of support from at least seven member states, which would precipitate a formal Commission response to their demands. Brexit or not, watch this space.

Rhian Greaves is associate partner at Pannone Corporate LLP

This article is adapted from one that appeared in the October 2019 issue of EHN (login required).

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