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EU plastics industry outraged by European Commission's proposal to ban single-use plastics 

Single use plastic cutlery
The proposed directive aims to stem the profusion of marine litter by banning single-use plastic products, such as disposable balloon sticks, straws, cutlery, plates, cups and food containers.

The European Commission recently presented an ambitious new directive to tackle marine litter by introducing a number of measures, including reduction and restriction of selected single-use plastic products, such as disposable balloon sticks, straws, cutlery, plates, cups and food containers. That has the European plastics industry in an uproar.

The European Plastics Converters (EuPC) sent out a press release saying that it “regrets that the European Commission has put forward the proposal for a directive” targeting certain plastic products to reduce their impact on the environment. The proposed directive is taking aim at single-use plastics and fishing gear. “The proposal represents a symbolic attack on a category of poorly defined products, which leads to confusion of end users and causes fragmentation of the single market,” said the EuPC. “It contains a definition of single-use products that is misleading and does not reflect industrial classification.”

The use of a directive is intended to prevent a “fragmented legal landscape” throughout the EU. However, the EuPC’s statement noted that, in the case of the ban on plastic carrier bags, just the opposite has happened, with some member states implementing “Bags Directive” rules at their own discretion, “leading to a proliferation of rules and labeling requirements.” 

Noting that the proposed solutions “do not match the existing rationale of the Plastics Strategy and the Voluntary Commitments put forward by the plastics industry backed by the Commission itself,” the EuPC points out that on the one hand the Commission calls for life cycle assessments (LCAs) “in order to truly assess best environmental options” and, on the other hand, “restricts or bans certain products made of plastic without analyzing which option would be the most sustainable.”

Even the bioplastics industry is a bit concerned about this proposed directive, fearing that bioplastic products might get caught up in the ban wagon without a careful definition of plastics or products or consideration of the consequences. “The proposal is a meaningful addition to existing legislation and strategies; unfortunately, however, it remains vague regarding sustainable alternatives,” stated François de Bie, Chairman of European Bioplastics (EUBP). 

According to the EUBP, the potential positive impacts of already introduced measures in the revised EU waste legislation need to be assessed first; additional actions should be based on those previous efforts and “tie in” with them to result in better regulation. “The proposal specifically foresees the substitution of currently used single-use products by ‘readily available, more sustainable materials,’” but finding these substitutes may not be possible. 

“Plastics have evolved to become one of the [most closely] scrutinized material categories existing today, especially when it comes to food packaging and catering items,” stressed de Bie, who adds, “bioplastics can offer such sustainable and safe alternatives for some of these identified products.”

Obviously, the European Commission does not know that even bioplastics have their issues with sustainability—not all bioplastics are compostable or recyclable. Thus, banning straws, stirrers, and other “single-use” containers in the hopes that the favored “bioplastics” will be ready to satisfy demand for these products gives the impression that these so-called “green” plastics will be better for the marine environment, even if they also take a year or more to degrade (if at all). 

The EUBP appears to acknowledge this dilemma by noting that in certain contexts single-use catering items are relevant and necessary—for example, in closed systems with integrated waste management schemes, such as airplanes, sports arenas, or open-air events. Moreover, other factors must be considered, such as safety and hygiene. “In these specific cases, bio-based plastic catering items can help to reduce environmental impacts, for example, through a lower carbon footprint. Whether the items should be mechanically recyclable or compostable depends on the defined waste management concept of the respective closed system,” suggests de Bie.   

Alexandre Dangis, EuPC Director, commented: “At a moment when the EU Commission is asking the industry to pledge or commit to more use of recycled plastics materials, it is also asking to ban certain recyclable products. This is the wrong signal, which will maintain the levels of landfill in the EU that we have today if European waste laws are not properly implemented. One could then argue whether the Commission is able to influence member states on proper environmental behavior, in line with existing directives. Instead, the EU Commission is attacking a part of the industry by banning products.”

EuPC also noted that the proposal has an obvious bias as it is supported by an impact assessment, which has been mainly based on a study authored by one consultancy paid by the Commission, that also worked to support anti-plastics lobbies.

The proposal also hits producers of these products by making them cover the costs of cleanup and waste management. Bans also “turn off the flow” of these single-use plastic products at their source, which has the approval of environmental group Oceana.

The PlasticsEurope Association urged the European Commission to “avoid shortcuts,” noting that “plastic product bans are not the solution and will not achieve the structural change needed to build the foundation for a sustainable and resource efficient economy.”

IK Industrievereinigung Kunstoffverpackungen e.V. (the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films) in Bad Homburg, Germany, released a statement rejecting the proposed ban on selected plastic products. “With its far-reaching Plastics Strategy, announced at the start of the year, the EU Commission obliges all stakeholders in the value creation chain to share responsibility for sustainable recovery and reuse, thereby raising the bar considerably,” explained IK Managing Director Dr Jürgen Bruder. “Bans of individual products completely overturn this holistic approach, which our industry wholeheartedly supports. Instead of truly sustainable collection and recovery solutions, resource efficiency and raising customer awareness of sustainable consumption and environmentally responsible handling of unavoidable waste, we are now seeing unnecessary political gesturing.”

Bruder believes that bans are ineffective at raising people’s awareness and ultimately changing their behavior long term with respect to the proper disposal of single-use plastic products. “It’s really a question of how we want to live and consume,” Bruder adds. “If it has become a widespread trend to eat and drink when we’re out and about, we should be reinforcing the sustainable solutions already on offer for this, without discriminating against certain materials right from the start. After all, such bans can also lead people to fall back on materials that are ultimately even more harmful in ecological terms.”

Bruder cites a case where disposable dinnerware is beneficial: At major events, plastic plates and cutlery provide “real added value with regard to functionality, safety and hygiene.” After the event, the plastic items are collected and recycled. “Why should such applications be prohibited?” Bruder asks. “In our opinion, prohibiting individual products is wholly disproportionate.”

The IK takes the position that the EU Commission should focus on the consistent implementation of existing waste legislation. “It makes more sense to “invest political energy in closing the loop and informing citizens instead of introducing bans,” Bruder concludes.

Ultimately, bans only serve to relieve individuals of their responsibility to keep their environment free of litter. They disrupt business operations of the banned products as well as the recycling industries in developed countries that have invested heavily in the infrastructure to capture the value of plastics.

The present proposal is accompanied by a new public consultation that will be open to all stakeholders until July 23, 2018. The EuPC said it will participate in the consultation, as in its present form it “is unacceptable,” and will look at ways “to legally challenge the definition of single-use plastics.”

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