Almost a year has passed since the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the Single-use Plastics Directive (SUPD) in summer 2019. In order to comply with the SUPD, Member States (MS) have two years to bring into force the necessary laws, regulations and administrative provisions. Now, with the deadline ending on 3 July 2021, we are almost at half time.
The SUPD has a strong impact on the entire plastic industry and caused a great amount of uncertainty due to its blurry wording. In order to clarify its scope and objectives as well as its general terms and definitions, in particular its single-use plastic product definitions, the directive calls on the European Commission (EC) to prepare corresponding guidelines. This guidance should provide national authorities and economic operators with technical and legal clarifications, along with illustrative examples, to ensure harmonized interpretation of single-use plastic products in accordance with the SUPD. However, in the meantime, several MS already adopted national legislation to implement the directive. Lately, France got its circular economy law off the ground, which included very strict regulations beyond the minimum requirements set by the Directive. Hence, we can expect some deviating implementations on national level.
With a view to avoid such developments, the bioplastics industry engaged in the process of drafting the guidelines. The guidance’s great challenge lies in the efficient combination of the directive’s original intentions and goals on the one hand and the available solutions and alternatives that indeed can help to ease the burden on the environment on the other hand. In the past, this challenge already became apparent when discussing the scope of the directive. What is a plastic? What is a natural polymer? And how restrictive should exemptions that meet the criteria set out in the legal text be handled? Tackling single-use products and the consequent behavioural patterns ultimately does not stop at single-use products made from plastics. If plastic products are banned, substitution with other materials is likely. Besides, it is highly debatable if the same functionality – especially for the food-contact products – can be achieved. A potential risk for food safety and hygiene as well as for human health cannot be negated. The safety question had already been raised before the Covid-19 outbreak and was only further intensified by the pandemic.
Recently, a study commissioned by the EC, which was launched in order to support the development of the SUPD guidelines, had been introduced. A consultation on the study in the form of a webinar marked the final phase of stakeholder participation before the EC will make its decision. Regarding bioplastics, there are at least two key formulations in the directive, whose way of interpretation decides over the question whether bioplastics will be at least partially excluded from the SUPD restrictions. The discussions are about the interpretation of the terms “natural polymer” and “not chemically modified”. In both cases, the EC will now have to decide whether it will apply a strict or a wider interpretation. The EC should stronger acknowledge the benefits of bioplastics and exclude certain biopolymers from the SUPD restrictions. Unintentionally, the Covid-19 outbreak emphasizes the importance of a certain range of single-us plastics products. Bio-based as well as biodegradable and compostable plastics could help substitute the urgently needed single-use products made from conventional plastics.
Finally, it also remains to be seen if there is sufficient acceptance by the MS for the EC’s draft of the SUPD guidance. A last meeting between the EC and MS to discuss the guidance is scheduled for May/June. Despite the current pandemic, the EC wants to stick to its timeline and present the final SUPD guidance by July 2020.