Should bans on plastic be postponed? Single-use debate fires up amid COVID-19

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/klenova
©GettyImages/klenova

Related tags: COVID, single-use plastic

The European Union is holding steadfast to its single-use plastic directive deadline, despite pressure from industry to postpone.

The Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive 2019/904 is not only a ‘difficult’ piece of legislation to follow, but it hinders the free circulation of packaging and goods among Member States.

Further, plastic products, including single use which are ‘not easily substitutable’, are providing basic precautions in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

These points, among others, were recently argued by trade association European Plastics Converters (EuPC) in an open letter​ to the European Commission, requesting the SUP Directive be postponed ‘for at least an additional year’.

However, EU Commission spokesperson for environmental matters, Vivian Loonela, responded that ‘deadlines in EU law have to be respected’.

“Member States still have one year to transpose the SUP Directive in national law,” ​she continued, as reported by Euractiv​.

While Loonela’s response will have been lamented by plastics manufacturers, environmental organisations have welcomed the Commission’s unwavering stance.  

What is the SUP Directive?

Single-use plastic refers to all products that are wholly or partly made of plastic, and are intended to be used just once before being disposed of.

It is this ‘disposal’ of single-use plastic has caught the attention of regulators – and for good reason. According to Plastic Oceans UK, more than eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and 50% of this is single-use plastic.

In May last year, the European Council took action to reduce ocean pollution, through the adoption of new legislation concerning single-use products made of plastic.

Where alternatives exist on the market, their single-use counterparts will be banned in all Member States. These include cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, and sticks for balloons.

Single-use plastic cups, food and beverage containers made of polystyrene, and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic are also in the firing line.

"Plastic straws or forks are little objects but can make great, long-lasting damages​​. The single-use plastics legislation will address​​ 70%​​ of marine litters items, avoiding environmental damage that would otherwise cost €22 billion by 2030,”​​ stated Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, at the time.

The Council gave Member States approximately two years to instate the new legislation into their national law. And it is this deadline, that the Commission is unwilling to budge.

Coronavirus and single-use plastic

For EuPC, the SUP Directive merits reconsideration – especially given the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

EuPC represents companies that use plastic raw materials and recycled polymers to manufacture new products.

Urging the Commission to acknowledge the ‘benefits of plastic products’, and in particular single-use applications, during the virus outbreak, EuPC said the Directive does not take the hygienic consequences of banning single-use plastics into account.

“It only [reflects] on littering aspects,” ​inked EuPC’s Managing Director Alexandre Dangis and President Renato Zelcher on 8 April.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has shown us that not all materials are the same. Single-use plastics are not easily substitutable, in particular in keeping the same hygienic properties to safeguard consumers. Many independent studies repeatedly show that plastics is the material of choice for ensuring hygiene, safety as well as preservation from contamination,”​ they noted.

“The freedom of circulation of these goods is necessary to keep hygiene, health and safety in the supply of many products, such as food contact materials, protective equipment, medical devises and medicines. We cannot afford, in any sense, to forget such basic precautions that plastic products can provide and is already providing in the field right now to assist in the fight against this crisis.”

By postponing its implementation, EuPC argued that Member States would have more time to focus on ‘more urgent measures’ in the fight against COVID-19, by distributing single-use plastic products in emergency situations.

Postponement request ‘unfounded and unjustified’

The Commission’s decision to stand by its original deadline, despite the coronavirus pandemic, has been applauded by anti-single-use plastic advocacy groups across the bloc.

Zero Waste Europe, for example, described industry’s request to postpone the Directive as ‘completely unfounded and unjustified’.

“Notably, the Directive on single-use plastics does not even apply to single-use plastic products used in the health sectors, such as single-use gloves, gowns and masks,” ​the campaign group’s Consumption and Production Campaigner, Justine Maillot, told FoodNavigator.

“It is interesting to see that even in the health sector, efforts are growing towards reusable alternatives for respirators and face masks,” ​she continued, adding that the current stock scarcity many countries are dealing with proves that reusables could be a solution even for the health sector.

Indeed, rather on focusing on the health sector, the SUP Directive applies to the single-use plastics most commonly found in the environment, Maillot told this publication, citing single-use plastic cups and bottles, straws and cutlery, as well as packets and wrappers. 

“Those disposable plastics can easily be avoided altogether or replaced by reusable alternatives, such as reusable and refillable drinks and food containers. 

“Those single-use plastic items, including single-use packaging, not only have a tremendous impact on our environment, they also have adverse effects on human health. They simply do not belong to a toxic-free circular economy.”

Related topics: COVID-19, Policy, Sustainability

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