Commission Guidelines Published on Single-use Plastics Directive
15 June 2021
The European Commission’s Guidelines clarifying and interpreting the product scope of regulated plastics under the 2019 Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive was published in the EU Official Journal. The Guidelines, published on 7 June 2021, define regulated products and plastics, though their scope has faced pushback from some stakeholder groups and governments. The Guidelines are expected to clarify the scope of necessary regulation for national governments before the application of the law on 3 July 2021, and provide certainty for producers and traders.
The Directive (EU) 2019/904 on single-use plastics was adopted in June 2019 and is supposed to be transposed into national law EU-wide, and applied, as of 3 July 2021. It aims to prevent and reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment (in particular the aquatic environment), and on human health, as well as to promote the transition to a circular economy with innovative and sustainable business models, products and materials.
The 2019 Directive is one of several EU efforts to promote regulation and strategies increasing sustainability: it is part of the Commission’s Plastics Strategy and the Circular Economy Action Plan, also contributing to the Zero Pollution Action Plan under the European Green Deal. The Directive focuses on plastic items, which represent over 80% of marine litter and harm marine biodiversity and the human food chain. It implements outright bans on certain products, but also imposes extended producer responsibility obligations, product design requirements, labelling, and/or awareness-raising measures on others.
Hong Kong traders should be aware that the scope of the Directive is limited to single-use plastics (SUPs). As such, a clear interpretation of single-use and plastic are of particular importance to its implementation. The Guidelines will facilitate a harmonised application of the SUP directive by providing a clearer definition of prohibited items and materials.
According to the Guidelines, single-use plastic products cover products that are made wholly or partly of plastic and are typically intended to be used just once or for a short period of time before they are thrown away. The definition of plastic includes materials consisting of a polymer to which additives or other substances may have been added, and which can function as a main structural component of final products, with the exception of natural polymers that have not been chemically modified. The Directive explicitly points to paints, inks and adhesives as polymeric materials which are excluded from the scope of the Directive. The Guidelines further clarify the terms ‘natural polymer' and ‘chemical modification' to ensure a consistent implementation across the EU.
Hong Kong traders should note that certain single-use plastics for which affordable alternatives exist may no longer be placed on the EU market as of 3 July: cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, balloons sticks, as well as cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic. Certain single-use plastic products which have played a critical role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as personal protection equipment (single-use face masks or gloves) are not banned by the SUP Directive.
The Commission’s Guidelines also describe, by means of specific product criteria, the different items that are caught under the Directive, including food containers, packets and wrappers, and beverage containers.
Some stakeholder groups such as the Rethink Plastic Alliance have expressed disappointment that the Guidelines do not consider materials derived from natural sources, such as viscose, cellophane and lyocell, to be plastics for the purposes of the Directive. Furthermore, some national governments have expressed disagreement with the inclusion of biodegradable plastics within the scope of the Directive: Italian Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani has stated that the EU “scientific community has a worldwide leadership on the development of biodegradable materials, but at the moment they are not usable by industry, because there is a new and absurd European Directive”.
According to the Commission, biodegradable plastics are not exempted from the SUP Directive because there are no widely agreed technical standards available to certify that a specific plastic product is properly biodegradable in the marine environment in a short timeframe and without causing harm to the environment.
A review of the Directive is planned for 2027, which will include an assessment of the scientific and technical progress in developing criteria and standards for plastic biodegradability in the marine environment. Furthermore, the Commission plans to develop a policy framework on the use of biodegradable or compostable plastics in the context of the Circular Economy Action plan.
Please click on the following link to access the Commission guidelines on single-use plastic products.