Why is there a need to act at EU level on single-use plastics?

There are a number of reasons to act on single-use plastic items:

  1. This is an environmental issue. Marine litter is a major problem in Europe, contributing to pollution of the marine environment; it also generates costs to society, from cleaning up beaches and affecting tourism, to potential health threats. These costs are borne by private and public budgets alike. There is therefore a need to address single-use plastics, which are particularly prone to littering, and often escape waste collection schemes, ultimately contributing to more than half of marine litter.
  2. This is a single market issue, as more and more Member States or local authorities take individual actions to ban various types of single use plastics, while grassroots movements aim at reducing consumption of certain types of items. The risk of fragmentation is real, and there needs to be a level playing field.
  3. This is an economic opportunity, to innovate and replace the most harmful single-use plastics with more innovative products or business models – for instance, by building on the EU’s lead in the bioeconomy, or by establishing take-back and re-use schemes which create local jobs. This legislation will offer clarity, and the economies of scale needed for investment and innovation in the Single Market.
  4. This is supported by citizens. EU citizens are aware of this issue and want action. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, 87% of Europeans worry about the environmental impact of plastic, 74% worry about its impact on their health; 94% think that products should be designed to facilitate recycling; and same percentage think that industry and retailers should try to reduce plastic packaging.

Why has the Commission proposed a new Directive to tackle marine litter?

More than 80% of marine litter is plastic. The European Commission has proposed new EU-wide rules that target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe's beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear. These products are the biggest part of the problem. Together they constitute 70% of all marine litter items.

To address this problem, the Commission has put on the table a comprehensive set of measures. The Single-Use Plastics Directive is an integral part of the wider approach announced in the Plastics Strategy and an important element of the Circular Economy Action Plan. Through this proposal Europe is meeting its commitments at global level to tackle marine litter originating from Europe.

What will be the impact of this Directive on marine litter?

Implementation of this proposal will aim to reduce littering by more than half for the ten single-use plastic items, avoiding environmental damage which would otherwise cost €223 billion by 2030. It will also avoid the emission of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030.

This proposal also has economic benefits; replacing single-use plastic items with more innovative alternatives could create up to 30,000 jobs, building on the EU’s lead in the bioeconomy.

What are the main elements of the Commission proposal?

This initiative directly addresses the top ten single-use plastic items found on EU beaches; and abandoned, lost and disposed of fishing gear - which together constitute 70% of all marine litter items. The proposal tackles the root causes of the problem. That means looking at how these items are produced, distributed and used by businesses and consumers, how they are disposed of, and how some of them end up on beaches, in seas and oceans.

The following sets of measures are proposed:

  • A ban of the plastic content, or elements of the plastic content, of certain products, such as plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and balloon sticks, all of which will have to be made exclusively from more sustainable materials instead.
  • Consumption reduction targets: Member States will have to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drinks cups.
  • Obligations for producers, who will have to help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness raising measures for single-use plastic items.
  • Collection targets: Member States will be obliged to collect 90% of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example through deposit refund schemes;
  • Labelling Requirements: Certain products will require a label which indicates how waste should be disposed, the environmental impact of the product, and the presence of plastics in the products.
  • Awareness-raising measures: Member States will be obliged to raise consumers' awareness about the impact of using single-use plastics and fishing gear, and about the re-use systems and waste management options for all of these products.
Single-use plastics impact assessment

How did the Commission identify the products to target?

The proposal focuses on the 10 single-use plastic items most found on European beaches, which represent 86% of all single-use plastic items on beaches, and about half of all plastic marine litter.

The Joint Research Centre of the Commission collected and processed the data in the context of the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, and building on work of the four regional sea conventions and a Technical Group on marine litter. A representative sample was used covering 276 beaches of 17 EU Member States and 4 Regional Seas during 2016. The 355,671 items observed were ranked by their abundance. The results take into account other monitoring exercises and conclude that the top 10 of the most found items have been stable over the years and across the different regional seas.

Which 10 products have been chosen?

The plastic products focused on by the Commission are cotton buds, cutlery (including plates, straws and stirrers), balloons and balloon sticks, food containers, beverage cups (including their lids), bottles and beverage containers, cigarette butts, bags, crisp packets and sweet wrappers, wet wipes and sanitary items, and fishing gear.

What is the legal context of the proposal?

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.

Single-use plastics impact assessment

What is the public context of the proposal?

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 BBC 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.

I'm a producer of single-use plastics. Will I have to pay for clean-up and recycling costs?

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes hold manufacturers and producers accountable for the materials they use by giving them the financial and environmental responsibility of cleaning up their products after use. The schemes are already well established for packaging, where producers agree to contribute. With the newly adopted EU waste legislation in May 2018, EPR is mandatory for all packaging. These EPR schemes may include litter clean-up costs.

Producers have a responsibility to contribute to clean-up and recycling costs, as they are contributing to the problem upstream with their production methods. Currently, the costs of littering of single-use plastic items are met by the public sector - ultimately by tax payers - but also by other private actors such as the tourism and fisheries industries which are strongly affected by marine litter.

What will change for fishing gear containing plastic?

Abandoned, lost or disposed fishing gear represents around 27% of marine litter items: the equivalent of over 11,000 tons per year. Fishing gear is designed to catch fish and will continue to do so even if lost (“ghost fishing”), causing particular damage to the marine environment. The plastic used for fishing gear has a very high recycling potential, but the current recycling market is rather small and much localised.

This proposal aims to 'close the loop' for fishing gear by introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for gear containing plastic. Once it has arrived on shore, plastic fishing gear should be taken care of by the producers of plastic fishing gear parts, and not by the ports. Fishermen and artisanal makers of fishing gear containing plastic will not be covered by the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme.

Does this proposal tackle the challenge of microplastics?

A high proportion of the microplastics in our oceans result from fragmentation of bigger pieces of plastic, so reducing plastic litter will reduce the presence of microplastics.

Some microplastics are intentionally added to products (for example in cosmetics, paints or detergents), and the Commission has separately started work to restrict these by requesting the European Chemicals Agency to review the scientific basis for considering a restriction.

Other microplastics end up in the ocean due to product use (for example dust from tyre wear and or washing textiles), or from primary plastic production (for example, spills of pre-production plastic pellets). The Commission will tackle this type of pollution through methods for measuring the quantities of microplastics emitted, better labelling, possible regulatory measures, and increased capture through waste water treatment.

Was there a public consultation prior to the development of the initiative?

Yes. In line with Better Regulation requirements, stakeholder consultations and an open public consultation and thorough impact assessments were carried out in preparation of the proposal. In the public consultation between December 2017 and February 2018, 95% of respondents agreed that action to tackle single-use plastics is both necessary and urgent, and 79% believed that these measures should be taken at EU level in order to be effective. 70% of manufacturers and 80% of brands also replied that action is necessary and urgent. 72 % have cut down on their use of plastic bags and 38 % of them over the last year.

What are the next steps for the proposal?

The Commission's proposals will now go to the European Parliament and Council for adoption. The Commission urges the other institutions to treat this as a priority file, and to deliver tangible results for Europeans before the elections in May 2019.

Who is the single-use plastics campaign targeted at?

The campaign is targeting consumers who are aware of the impacts of plastic waste and marine litter. They are concerned by the scale of the problem 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 to change their relationship with plastic.

The campaign addresses all Europeans, with special focus on a number of target EU Member States: Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Spain. In addition to materials in English, materials in languages of these countries have also been developed.

When will the campaign be implemented?

The European Commission single-use plastic campaign was launched on 5 June 2018, World Environment Day, which this year had the theme “Beat Plastic Pollution”. It focuses on one specific category of single-use plastics items each week, including cotton buds, plastic bags, coffee cups and lids, plastic straws, plastic cutlery, lollipop sticks (and sweet wrappers) and plastic bottles.