The core objective of the Single-Use Plastic Directive is notoriously to tackle the issue of marine littering. This point is underlined by the Directive itself as a key action for the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 which calls to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.
Thus, it is of utmost importance to keep into consideration the primary purpose of the Directive when unfolding its scope of application.
The plastics industry is committed to achieving the highest environmental standards set at EU level in order to allow a complete transition to a circular economy and to guarantee a high level of environmental protection. However, a real cooperation with other segments of the market, including the paper sector, represents here the real keystone.
In the past weeks, several positions have been put forward in regard to the types of items that should be included within the scope of the Single-Use Plastics Directive. In particular, the paper industry raised its concerns by demanding the exclusion of polymer-coated paper products, underlying the need to take into consideration the limited amount of plastics used in such items, which would not justify their insertion within the scope of the Directive.
In this regard, it should be highlighted that neither the Single-Use Plastics Directive nor its implementing acts – already published or currently at a drafting stage – set an upper limit in relation to the quantity of plastic that can be present in a product, above which the product should be considered as included in the scope of the directive.
The reason behind the non-inclusion of a specific threshold is that, when working on the drafting of the Directive, the European Commission run a qualitative rather than quantitative assessment in relation the types of products falling within its scope.
This mindful approach brought the EU legislator to the conclusion that it is not relevant how much plastics is contained in the single product but rather, what is the real function that the polymeric component carries out in the overall functioning of the item and the likelihood of the product to be littered after its use.
Therefore, the main questions in order to determine whether a product should be excluded by the scope of the Directive are: would this item be able to carry out its main function if deprived of the polymeric component? and Is this item likely to be improperly discarded after its use?
The position of the EU legislator does not leave room for doubts in regard to the single-use paper/paperboard products on which a coating, lining or the inclusion of plastics in the mass of paper pulp is applied to provide, for example, resistance against water or fat.
It is evident that without such component, the paper/paperboard product would not be able to carry out the main functions for which it was originally conceived.
In regard to the consumers’ littering behaviors, single-use paper/paperboard products bearing a polymeric substance, whether embedded in the pulp or used as lining/coating are generally perceived as more environmentally-friendly items and this misconception increases with the decrease of the plastic component in the product.
Therefore, paper/paperboard products are arguably more likely to be littered in the environment as the consumers are generally less aware of the consequences of an improper discarding behavior for products that are perceived as 100% paper whereas, the majority of single-use paper-based products bears a plastic barrier.
Besides being a useful mean to achieve a high level of environmental protection, the entire industry, across all sectors, should interpret the Single-Use Plastics Directive as a driver of modernisation and a boost to the research for truly green substitutes that will be able to guarantee both high levels of environmental protection and high standards for products’ performance.
This process should indiscriminately involve all segments of the industry in order to allow a unified adjustment to the EU the regulatory framework, without excluding products whose main component is not plastic but in which polymers, although present in a lower amount, cannot at this stage be replaced by other materials that are able to guarantee comparable high standards of performance.
The fight against marine litter should be the main concern of the industry as a whole, regardless of the operation field.
This Opinion has been published on EurActivand and is accessible at https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/opinion/sup-directive-and-marine-litter-an-industry-commitment-across-all-sectors/.