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Commission provides guidance for harmonised application of Single-Use Plastic rules

The European Commission has provided guidance on the EU rules on single-use plastics and adopted an Implementing Decision on the monitoring and reporting of fishing gear placed on the market and waste fishing gear collected.

These rules aim to reduce marine litter from single-use plastic products and fishing gear and promote the transition to a circular economy with innovative and sustainable business models, products and materials.

“Reducing the use of single-use plastics helps protect the health of people and the planet,” said Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans. “The European Union’s rules are a landmark achievement in addressing marine litter. They also stimulate sustainable business models and bring us closer to a circular economy where reuse precedes single-use. This is what the European Green Deal is all about – protecting and restoring our natural environment while stimulating businesses to innovate.”

“The negative impacts of plastic litter on the environment, on oceans and marine life, and on our health are global and drastic,” added Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius. “Plastic waste keeps on accumulating and 11,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost or discarded at sea in the EU per year, adding to the problem of ghost fishing. The rules to reduce plastic pollution are ambitious and respond to citizens’ calls for decisive action, making the EU a forerunner in the global fight against marine litter. Today we move closer to dealing with the grave impacts of single-use plastic products and abandoned fishing gear and advance to a more circular economy.”

According to the 2019 EU rules on single-use plastics, by 3 July this year Member States have to ensure that certain single-use plastic products are no longer placed on the EU market. Those are selected products for which affordable plastic-free alternatives exist on the market: cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, balloons sticks, as well as some products made of expanded polystyrene (cups and food and beverage containers) and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic.

For other plastic products, such as fishing gear, single-use plastic bags, bottles, beverage and food containers for immediate consumption, packets and wrappers, tobacco filters, sanitary items and wet wipes, different measures apply. These include limiting their use, reducing their consumption and preventing littering through labelling requirements, extended producer responsibility schemes (polluter pays principle), awareness campaigns and product design requirements.

The Guidelines aim to ensure that the new rules are applied correctly and uniformly across the EU. Harmonised transposition into national legislation is important for the smooth functioning of the internal market with respects to the products covered by those rules. Also, the aim is to incentivise bringing all fishing gear ashore and improving its handling there by involving extended producer responsibility schemes. Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear accounts for 27 per cent of beach litter, according to the impact assessment of 2018 and a significant proportion of the fishing gear placed on the market is not collected for treatment.

Therefore, on the basis of the data, Member States with marine waters will have to set, by 31 December 2024, a national minimum annual collection rate of waste fishing gear containing plastic for recycling, with a view to the establishment of binding quantitative Union collection targets.

With the Single-Use Plastics Directive, the EU is reducing the quantity of waste generated, tackling 10 single-use plastic items and fishing gear that account for most littered items found on Europe’s beaches and promoting circular economy transition and sustainable alternatives. More than 80 per cent of marine litter items are plastics. Single-use plastic products (SUPs) are used once, or for a short period of time, before being thrown away. They are therefore more likely to end up in our seas than reusable options. Plastic accumulates in seas, oceans and on beaches in the EU and worldwide, posing a severe risk to marine life and human health.

While plastics are a convenient, useful and valuable material, littered plastics cause environmental damage and negatively impact our economy. It damages activities such as tourism, fisheries and shipping, and creates the costs of cleaning. Under the European Green Deal, the EU is creating a circular economy, where plastics are used in a more sustainable way, re-used and recycled and not creating waste or pollution.

However, several NGOs argued that the standardisation request process for plastics recycling must be suspended.

According to a letter sent to the Commission and triggered by the plan to issue a standardisation request to CEN and CENELEC by September 2021, aiming to set definitions, test and calculation methods for a wide range of terms related to plastics recycling and recycled plastics, the standardisation process would impact a number of crucial sectors such as packaging, buildings and construction, electronics, agriculture and automotive. Indeed, several similar technical terms are to be established soon in EU legislation, as part of the upcoming revision of essential requirements for packaging waste and the implementing measures relating to the uptake of recycled content.

“If industry-led definitions for recyclability are set in standards before they are defined in laws, future legislative efforts could be effectively halted or even watered down, with an important practical consequence in making recycling targets less reliable,” the letter reads.

Once technical terms are set in legislation, standards can be a powerful tool in support of that legislation to improve the recyclability of plastic materials even further. For example, they could provide homogeneous packaging specifications, thus boosting recyclate quality and making it easier to effectively introduce old plastics into new products.

“If the EU wants to ramp up its recycling rates, the legal foundations must first be set in stone and this will only be achieved by legally binding definitions of crucial terms such as recyclability or recycled content,” said Fanny Rateau, Programme Manager at ECOS. “Standards can then take it to the next level and improve the recyclability of plastic materials even further. But not the other way around.”

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