What is the Single-Use Plastics Directive?

On the 3rd of July 2021, a new EU law came into effect that is set to change the face of waste management on the continent for years to come. In this post, we’ll look at what exactly the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) does, and why it is so revolutionary. 

The main thing to know about the SUPD is that it places an outright ban on the 9 plastic items most commonly found on European coastlines. These are all single-use plastics, which account for 50% of all the waste that washes up on our beaches. Here are the types of plastic product that are banned under the new law:

  • Straws 
  • Cutlery
  • Bags
  • Polystyrene Beverage Containers                                                 
  • Cotton Buds
  • Balloon Sticks
  • Beverage Stirrers
  • Plates
  • All Oxo-degradable Plastics
  • Polystyrene Food Container

Even by itself, banning this list of items from being sold in the EU is a massive win for environmentalists. But that is not all the SUPD achieves!

The directive also mandates that all plastic packaging must be recyclable by 2030 in the EU. That means no more wondering if a plastic is soft enough to be considered a ‘soft plastic’. While the timeline could probably be a bit more ambitious, having a deadline for this written into EU law is another major victory. 

Another achievement in the realm of recycling is that the directive mandates that all plastic bottles must be made with at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025! 2025 is also the year by which Irish recycling rates are required to reach 50% under the ‘Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy’ which was published in September of 2020. 

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the directive is shifting the responsibility for tackling plastic pollution from the consumer to the producer. For example, by January of 2023, the producers of plastic waste will have to cover the costs of cleaning it up! While the details of this have not yet been clarified, the simple acknowledgement that the onus is on producers is in many ways a revolutionary step forward in the fight against plastic pollution. 

The extended producer responsibility laid out in this directive centers around the ‘polluter pays principle’, which is the idea that whoever produces the pollution is the one who should bear the cost of cleaning it up. This comes up a few times in the directive, for example in the recommendation that member states should introduce measures to ensure that producers pay for the separate collection and recycling infrastructure for fishing gear. 

Besides single-use plastics, fishing gear is the next biggest source of marine plastic pollution, representing 27% of all waste on European beaches. It has been estimated that 700,000 tonnes of new fishing gear is discarded into the sea every year. That is about twice the weight of the empire state building. 

The problem with fishing gear is that it persists for between 600 and 800 years in the ocean. What’s more, it can keep catching fish long after it has been abandoned. It is likely that millions of marine animals are killed each year by ‘ghost fishing’. 

The SUPD addresses the fact that policies to date have not provided a satisfactory solution to this problem, and encourages member states to introduce financial incentives to bring back their gear for treatment and recycling. It also requires member states to monitor and assess all fishing gear containing plastic. Further, the ban on oxo-degradable plastics cuts out a lot of the fishing gear that gets tossed in the sea. 

Oxo-degradable plastics should not be confused with biodegradable plastics. Biodegradation involves breaking the material down into its most basic constituent parts like water and CO2. Oxo-degradable plastics, on the other hand, have additives designed to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. 

It is good that these are being banned, since plastics which break down into tiny pieces (called microplastics or nanoplastics depending on their size) can be extremely harmful to the health of ocean-dwelling animals and humans alike. That is because smaller animals mistake them for food, and they then make their way up the food chain to the larger animals, some of which we eat ourselves!

The single-use plastics directive is a huge step forward in the fight against plastic pollution. The EU is responsible for an unbelievable 60 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That is about 6,000 times heavier than the Eiffel Tower! Producing this much plastic waste is simply unsustainable. Something needs to be done fast, and this brilliant piece of legislation is a big part of that solution!