EU action on plastics


Plastics play an important role in both our economy and our daily lives – but the way plastic products are currently designed, produced, used and discarded harms the environment. The amount of marine litter in oceans and seas is growing, negatively impacting ecosystems, biodiversity and potentially human health. At the same time, valuable material that could be brought back into the economy is lost once littered. The potential economic and environmental benefits of a more resource efficient and circular approach are not realised. The need to tackle these problems and reduce the environmental, economic and social harm is widely recognised.

Being widely available, persistent and used for applications prone to littering plastic is the main source of marine litter as it is hardly biodegradable and often causes toxic and harmful consequences. Due to its persistency, these impacts are growing as each year we generate more plastic waste. It is a global problem, as acknowledged by many initiatives worldwide, but Europe is a source and suffers the impact.

In addition to harming the environment, marine litter damages activities such as tourism, fisheries and shipping. For instance, the cost of marine litter to EU fisheries is estimated at between 1% and 5% of total revenues from catches by the EU fleet. It threatens food chains, especially seafood.

EU action on plastic

Europe has a responsibility to deal with its part of the problem, and is committed to act globally. As part of the Plastics Strategy, the European Commission has committed itself to look into further action to address plastic marine litter that builds on the efforts underway in EU Member States. The problem of marine litter is global by nature, as litter moves in the marine environment, and litter originating from one country can affect another. Joined-up action is needed, also to ensure a single market with high environmental standards and legal certainty for businesses.

The European Commission legal initiative aiming to reduce marine litter is part of a wider, more comprehensive approach, namely the Plastics Strategy, the Circular Economy Action Plan and the revised waste legislation.

The Plastics strategy already tackles the design part of the cycle, for example, through a review of the essential requirements of the Packaging Directive. The strategy pushes an ambitious approach for plastic packaging recyclability, in line with our revised waste legislation. It also includes a strong response on microplastics, a significant source of marine pollution. The revised Waste Framework Directive has strengthened general principles and objectives; ambitious 2030 recycling targets for municipal waste and plastic packaging are also set; however these cannot be reached without in depth efforts on littering or waste prevention.

The legislative initiative on single-use plastics complements all of these actions on design, recycling and microplastics and goes one step further. The main objective is prevention – reducing plastic marine litter of single-use plastic and fishing gear e.g. by market restrictions and producers paying for clean-up. As a result, innovation for new business models (such as reuse models), multiuse items or material substitution will be boosted. In cases where marine litter will still occur, the resulting shift from single-use plastics to reusable solutions and many natural, untreated alternative materials should lead to a reduced environmental impact. The initiative also tackles lost fishing gear because of its direct pathway to the sea. The main objective here is to incentivise bringing all fishing gear ashore and improve its handling there.

The single-use plastics initiative directly addresses the two main sources of marine litter in Europe – i) single-use plastics and ii) fishing gear. Together, these constitute 84% of plastic marine litter items, among them the most environmentally harmful items in the marine environment. Non-plastic marine litter is often inert (stone) or biodegradable (paper, wood) and thus poses a lower environmental threat.

The top 10 most commonly found single-use plastics make up 86% of all single-use plastic in beach litter and is responsible for more than half of plastic marine litter. The list is very similar to lists in the US and other countries that consistently find the same plastic products in their marine litter.

Fishing gear (more precisely fishing and aquaculture gear) that is either lost or abandoned, including nets, makes up around a third of beach plastic litter. Abandoned, lost or disposed of fishing gear includes: larger parts of fishing gear (such as pots and traps, nets, or lines) that are voluntarily abandoned on fishing grounds or accidentally lost due to adverse weather conditions, interactions and conflicts between gear users. These may entangle marine life (“ghost fishing”) (such as pots and traps, nets, or lines) with worn out material (netting, lines) voluntarily dumped overboard.

Member States are taking national action against single-use plastic. France has banned plastic cups and plates, Italy and France are banning plastic cotton buds, and the UK and recently, the Brussels region, both want to ban straws. Other countries like Ireland and Portugal are also considering measures. The EU must act now to ensure these diverse actions do not fragment the single market. Businesses need a level playing field, with clarity and legal certainty.

Legal context

In 2015, the Circular Economy Package included proposals to modernise the EU waste legislation on which an agreement between the Institutions was reached in December 2017. The new legislation includes general provisions on waste prevention and marine litter.

On 16 January 2018, the Commission adopted the "European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy", which recognises that marine litter remains an issue and that plastic is a significant source of pollution. It confirms, in its action plan, that additional action on fishing gear, including Extended Producers Responsibility and/or deposit schemes, will be examined.

The Common Fisheries Policy Control Regulation contains measures on retrieval and reporting on lost fishing gear, as well as the requirement to mark fishing gear. The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) allows Member States to financially support the collection of marine litter as well as invest in port facilities for waste collection.

The Commission's 2018 legislative proposal on port reception facilities includes measures to ensure that waste generated on ships or gathered at sea be returned to land and adequately managed. It refers explicitly to the Commission’s consideration for further action on fishing gear. In spring 2018, the Commission will adopt a proposal for a review of the Fisheries Control System, which will improve the rules on reporting of lost fishing gear, e.g. through the introduction of reporting, and on its retrieval.

Reducing Marine Litter: action on single use plastics and fishing gear – Impact Assessment

Public context

The general public is sensitive to the environmental impact of plastics. Eurobarometer surveys found that European citizens are concerned about the impact made by everyday plastic products on their health (74%) and on the environment (87%).

Documentaries such as A Plastic Ocean or the BBC’s Blue Planet II brought the dimension of this global problem to attention of a wider public. 33% of Europeans identified marine pollution as the most important environmental issue

The implementation of the Plastic Bag Directive shows that restrictive measures can bring immediate results and public acceptance. Its implementation shows that even small levies on light plastic bags (around 0.10€) can lead to significant reductions in consumption in a short period. In Ireland the introduction of a tax on plastic shopping bags resulted not only in a 90% reduction of plastic bags provided in retail outlets, but also in a marked decline in bags found on beaches, from an average of 18 plastic bags/500m in 1999 to 5 in 2003.

The public consultation, that took place between December 2017 and February 2018, received more than 1800 contributions and showed that both within the wider public and with stakeholders there is an awareness of the need for action on single-use plastics.

98.5% of respondents consider that action to tackle single-use plastic marine litter is “necessary”, and 95% consider it “necessary and urgent”. More than 70% of manufacturers and more than 80% of brands and recyclers considered action "necessary and urgent". Legal clarity and investment certainty over a unified single market is essential to all businesses involved in the plastic value chain.

European Commission awareness-raising campaign on single-use plastics

Despite sincere recognition of the scale of the problem, many consumers still purchase, use, and inappropriately dispose of single-use plastics on a daily basis. To mark the 2018 World Environment Day on 5 June, the Commission has launched an EU-wide awareness-raising campaign to put the spotlight on consumer choice and highlight individual people’s role in combatting plastic pollution and marine litter. The campaign is targeting EU consumers, who are aware of the critical situation involving marine litter, but have not yet translated this knowledge into their daily choices. It aims to promote sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics, inviting participants to take action and change their relationship with plastics.