Official Journal of the European Union

C 62/207

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment’

(COM(2018) 340 final — 2018/0172 (COD))

(2019/C 62/34)




Council, 15.6.2018

European Parliament, 11.6.2018

Legal basis

Articles 192(1) and 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union



Plenary Assembly decision




Section responsible

Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment

Adopted in section


Adopted at plenary


Plenary session No


Outcome of vote



1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) supports the proposal for a directive on single-use plastics and sees it as a crucial element in the circular economy strategy as well as with a view to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.


In particular, the Committee stresses that the transition towards sustainability requires first and foremost the involvement of all political, economic, social, environmental and cultural stakeholders, as well as that of every member of the general public, in a new paradigm of production, consumption and recycling of products. This is why education, training and awareness-raising campaigns are fundamental at all levels, paying particular attention to young people of school age.


The Committee sees the Commission’s proposal as an important pilot project, with a specific focus on those plastic products that are most commonly found in the seas and oceans. Nevertheless, the proposal could be even more ambitious; moreover, it should be accompanied by a roadmap and other initiatives aimed at ensuring effective implementation.


In particular the Committee makes the following recommendations:


consideration should be given to expanding the list of ten products, and other products should be included for which sustainable alternatives are already available on the market in sufficient quantity and at a reasonable price;


the principle according to which all biodegradable products must also be compostable should be clarified, with specific deadlines for photodegradation on land and sea;


fishermen can play a crucial part in cleaning the seas and oceans. The incentives for returning fishing gear should be extended as soon as possible to include all the waste collected while fishing. In order to fully develop a new system for cleaning up seas and oceans, all relevant stakeholders and local authorities should be involved. In addition, all ports, including smaller ones, should possess an advanced system for the collection and transparent management of waste;


although 90 % of the single-use plastic products present in the European market are produced in third countries, all companies in the sector should receive support in the transition towards more sustainable production. In particular, innovation and development of sectors such as ecodesign, bioplastics and secondary raw materials must be encouraged through the use of financial and fiscal tools. In this way, the EU can benefit from significant growth in the trade balance, as well as fostering the development of more sustainable companies and providing more high-quality jobs;


the ‘polluter pays’ principle established with Directive 2004/35/EC is a fundamental pillar of the Commission’s proposal and lies at the heart of a fairer and more balanced distribution of the costs of waste management and recycling. If properly implemented, the directive will make it possible to lower these costs for those companies that have certified processes for the prevention of pollution or for the direct recovery of manufactured polluting products;


greater coordination with the rest of the existing legislation on waste management and recycling, focusing on separating rubbish. Member States should also harmonise authorisations and sanctions;


the strategy for single-use plastic will have a limited effect if the Commission does not intervene with an ad hoc strategy for more sustainable management and monitoring of inland waters (lakes and rivers), through which 80 % of the waste in the oceans passes. The Committee recommends fostering the dissemination of governance systems that involve public and private authorities and organised civil society, such as ‘river contracts’, which should be seen as a fundamental requirement for access to certain environmental protection funds (e.g. Interreg);


the introduction of labelling and traceability systems for plastic products could represent added value with regard to waste management and recycling processes. The creation of a specific logo could strengthen consumer confidence, especially for products manufactured with secondary raw materials;


the directive should be revised every three years as opposed to every six years. This proposal is justified by the fact that the monitoring mechanisms are already active and have been validated (counting method). Furthermore, such a measure would resolve any problems that may arise during the implementation phase and, if necessary, ensure that the list of the ten products could be modified or expanded based on the implementation status of the directive and any developments in the field of ecodesign;


the many good practices that already exist in the circular economy should be further shared, strengthening the EESC’s European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, which is an effective tool for all stakeholders to exchange expertise.

2.   Introduction


In the European Union, plastic waste accounts for 80-85 % of marine waste, of which 50 % comes from single-use plastic (SUP) items while another 27 % is made up of fishing gear from traditional fishing and aquaculture that contains plastic, lost or abandoned at sea.


The ten SUPs found most frequently on European beaches account for 86 % of all the items found and 43 % of total marine waste. These are commonly used products which are not always thought of as containing plastic (1): food containers, cups for beverages, cotton buds, plates, straws, sticks for balloons, beverage containers and their lids, tobacco product filters, wet wipes and plastic carrier bags. These ten products, together with the fishing gear, account for approximately 70 % of all marine litter by count (2).


SUPs, which are generally made of polyethylene and polypropylene, require an average of 300 years to degrade in the environment, although in some cases photodegradation may take up to 1 000 years. Furthermore, degradation does not mean that the plastic becomes part of the natural cycle of life; rather, the item is transformed into microplastics, becoming invisible to the human eye.


Plastic is one of the most valuable inventions of the 20th century and has strongly influenced our lives. Its physical characteristics (flexibility, lightness and resistance) mean it has an infinite number of potential uses, such as in the case of SUPs, which are ideal for external use (e.g. picnics). This means that SUPs carry a high risk of being released into the environment, despite the intentions of many consumers and the efficiency of waste management and recycling systems. This risk and the environmental impact incurred by these products are disproportionate, especially considering that their anticipated service life may not exceed five minutes.


Those SUPs that do not enter the waste management chain accumulate in the seas and oceans with harmful effects on the environment as well as on human health, as they then enter the food chain. In addition, this phenomenon has an impact on several economic sectors such as tourism, fishing and maritime transport.


The problem of marine litter is cross-border in nature and is epitomised by islands of plastic (3). The European Union is committed to fighting against this phenomenon in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (4) and the Paris Agreement (COP 21). The Plastics Strategy (5) represented an initial step in this direction, within the framework of the Circular Economy Action Plan (6).

3.   Gist of the Commission proposal


The aim of the proposal for a directive is to prevent and reduce plastic marine litter (macroplastics) from single-use plastic items and fishing gear, by complementing the measures already envisaged under the Plastics Strategy, addressing the identified gaps in the existing actions and legislation.


The directive also ties in with the initiative aimed at eliminating single-use plastic bags (in favour of others made with bioplastics or compostable materials), which has in a very short space of time radically changed consumers’ habits, leading to very positive results for the environment (7).

3.3.   Single-use plastics (SUPs)


Following a count that took place on various European beaches, the proposal focuses on the ten SUPs that were most frequently found on these beaches. The Commission has planned a series of measures based on the availability of alternative products that are both sustainable and affordable. If these already exist on the market, their corresponding polluting versions (e.g. straws, plates and cotton buds) will be eradicated. If not, a set of measures aimed at reducing consumption through awareness campaigns and promoting eco-design will be put in place in order to produce alternative, biocompatible and recyclable materials as soon as possible (e.g. food containers, cups for beverages, balloons, packets and wrappers, beverage containers, tobacco product filters, wet wipes, light plastic bags).


The directive provides for the application of an extended producer responsibility scheme for all products that are not subject to marketing restrictions, in order to contribute to the costs of waste prevention and management.


The Commission also proposes a labelling system aimed at informing consumers about waste management with a view to encouraging selective collection and recycling. This measure also involves flagging up behaviour that should be avoided (e.g. using wet wipes).


The proposal introduces specific measures regarding the design of products (e.g. bottle caps) and ambitious aims in terms of recycling (such as recycling 90 % of single-use plastic bottles separately).

3.4.   Fishing gear containing plastic


The directive proposes an integrated and more modern collection system for fishing gear based on three key points: the implementation of a specific mechanism and equipment for selective collection in ports, incentives for fishermen to return fishing gear or bring back gear they find abandoned in the sea, and the introduction of an extended producer responsibility scheme (EPR) for fishing gear manufacturers, including SMEs. The funds raised through the EPR scheme will be used to cover the costs of preventing rubbish generation (public awareness campaigns) and for waste management, including the cleaning-up of rubbish made up of single-use plastic products.


A large proportion of SUPs are manufactured in countries outside the EU. This implies that the proposal could foster sustained productive development in Europe thanks to strong domestic demand. It is expected, therefore, that this directive will also help speed up the growth of a competitive, sustainable and decarbonised economy, with a clear advantage in the trade balance with third countries and positive effects for the creation of quality jobs.

4.   General comments


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has been one of the pioneers of sustainable development based on awareness-raising both among the general public and among all political, economic, social, environmental and cultural stakeholders. For this reason, education at all levels plays a key role in building the foundations of a new way of producing, consuming and living, while also respecting the environment. Businesses play a key role in raising awareness and boosting education, as part of their corporate social responsibility. Organised civil society has already implemented many voluntary measures which could provide significant added value for the Commission’s initiative.


The EESC notes that pollution is a global problem. Any European initiative, regardless of its vision and scope, will be insufficient if it is not accompanied by a broader sustainable development project involving both the EU’s major competitors and developing countries. In particular, synergies should be developed with neighbouring third countries with regard to the sustainable management of enclosed seas such as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, the Committee expects the EU to take on an increasingly important role in leading sustainable development processes.


The EESC supports the proposal aimed at preventing and reducing plastic marine litter in oceans that comes from SUPs and fishing gear. The Committee understands that the focus should be on a limited number of products with high environmental impact in the form of a pilot project, and considers this initiative to be an important step towards creating a truly sustainable economy, within the framework of the Circular Economy Action Plan (8) and complementing the strategy on plastic (9). However, it feels that the Commission’s initiative could be more ambitious, extending the list to include all sustainable products that are already available in sufficient quantities at a reasonable price (e.g. coffee capsules) and guaranteeing that they are safe, involving the EFSA.


The EESC considers that the proposal to proceed with marketing restrictions is appropriate only in cases where sustainable alternative products that are safe for the environment and for people, as well as being affordable for consumers, are already available.


To resolve the issue of the accumulation of plastic waste, both consumer habits and production models are important in addition to waste management. National governments therefore need to put in place all the necessary tools to encourage the use of sustainable plastic products, promoting and supporting the most streamlined production and consumption processes. At the same time, it is important to raise awareness among the general public, from school age upwards, so that they act responsibly and participate in the selective collection of rubbish.


SUPs are products that carry a high risk of being released into the environment despite the intentions of many consumers and the efficiency of waste management and recycling systems. The impossibility of putting in place a system for collecting and recycling waste that is 100 % effective means that alternative sustainable products need to be designed as soon as possible, and steps should be taken to reduce the level of pollution that has been generated (10).


Eco-design is a key factor in the creation of alternative biocompatible products to replace those that are more polluting. The Committee recommends investing sufficient resources in this sector as part of the EU’s new financial framework, particularly via the new Horizon Programme. The EESC considers that green innovation in the field of bioplastics and secondary raw materials, as well as enzymes such as PETase that are capable of ‘eating’ plastic, can represent added value for the entire EU, from an economic, social and environmental point of view.


The Committee recommends adopting a specific approach towards plastic products that will be processed into secondary raw materials. In particular, the plastic should not contain toxic chemical additives that could prevent it from being recycled, thus causing harm to people, businesses and the environment. It is also important to establish an end-of-life for plastic products, since they cannot be endlessly recycled.


The EESC considers that one of the most obvious limitations of the initiative is the lack of a regulation backing up the concept of ‘biodegradability’. Moreover, the fact that a plastic product is biodegradable does not necessarily mean that it is sustainable from an ecological point of view. Plastic products, and SUPs in particular, can be transformed into microplastics, contaminating the environment and entering the food chain. For this reason, the Committee recommends intervening as soon as possible to clarify the principle that all biodegradable plastic products should also be compostable, that is, neither toxic nor harmful to the environment. In this regard, specific deadlines for biodegradability on land and at sea should also be set out in line with harmonised standard EN 13432 (11). Finally, a European labelling system must be put in place, with adequate screening mechanisms to avoid fraud.


The EESC supports the proposal to encourage the return of fishing gear by means of incentives for fishermen. The Committee notes that the act of separating rubbish is neither easy nor quick, and therefore hopes that the incentives will be appropriate to the amount of time spent by fishermen in sorting waste.


This measure should be extended to include the return of all waste collected during fishing activities, which, according to the laws currently in force, fishermen are obliged to pay for in order to dispose of them in the ports. This means that, nowadays, fishermen pay to clean up the ocean and dispose of waste that they have not themselves produced, but rather collected. For this reason it is recommended that the current measures regarding waste management be reviewed in view of the new European Fisheries Fund 2021-2026, with a view to encouraging proactive and responsible behaviour.


Since there are large amounts of waste, both floating and submerged, fishermen can provide important added value when it comes to collecting this waste. Following the recent introduction of limits to several fishing stocks, these incentives could be considered as a form of economic compensation (12). This means that, with adequate training and the direct involvement of fishing associations, the act of cleaning up could become another profitable economic activity along the same lines as fishing tourism (the blue economy), very common during those periods when there is a natural pause in fishing activity. This measure should be included in the new European Fisheries Fund and its implementation should form the subject of a specific European legislative initiative.


The Committee is in favour of introducing the EPR scheme, which is in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. To date, other productive sectors (tourism (13), maritime transport, fishing) and the general public (through higher taxes for the collection, management and recycling of rubbish) have paid the costs of sea pollution. At the moment of its implementation, it will be important to ensure that this principle is applied to those companies that actually manufacture polluting products and is not passed on to the final price paid by consumers (14).


The Committee, in line with the criteria of Directive 2004/35/EC (15), invites the Commission and the Member States to assess the possibility of reducing the economic burdens for businesses that develop certified actions for directly dealing with any pollution caused by their products (e.g. a returnable packaging system). Although the national authorities are directly responsible for evaluating these best practices, they should also be subject to secondary monitoring at EU level.


The EESC is aware that the transition to the circular economy will involve a range of high costs for many companies. For this reason, the Committee hopes that this process, which is so essential from an environmental point of view, will be accompanied by financial and fiscal incentives to enable companies to carry out the transition to sustainable production. It is important that this process is managed and monitored at European level to avoid situations of unfair competition in the internal market.


The transition to the circular economy could represent an opportunity for the whole of the European Union in terms of competitiveness and employment. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, an advanced system of education and training needs to be developed. This also implies an adequate system of active labour policies aimed at updating workers’ skills.


The Committee shares the idea of developing a directive enabling each Member State to implement the legislation in line with its own national specificities, although it would be important to limit any variations relating to authorisation and penalties as soon as possible (16). In this regard, it is essential that national governments involve organised civil society at all stages, from the preparation to the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of legislation. When it comes to implementing the directive, in some cases there are time limits to achieve the set aims, while in many others (such as PET recycling) no time limits are defined. The EESC considers that the absence of clear and equal deadlines for every element could exacerbate a lack of balance in the transposition phase of the legislation.


The Committee notes that the monitoring mechanisms are already active and have been validated (counting method). For this reason it is recommended that a revision of the directive take place every three years instead of six as was initially proposed. This measure would resolve any problems that may arise during the implementation phase and, if necessary, enable the list of the ten SUPs to be modified or expanded depending on the state of operation of the directive and any developments in the field of eco-design.

5.   Specific comments


According to UNEP (17), 80 % of the rubbish that has accumulated in the seas and oceans was produced on land and reaches the sea via rivers. This implies the need to intervene with increasingly coordinated measures to prevent rubbish from reaching the sea. Action targeting SUPs will improve the situation of lakes and rivers; however, no specific provisions have been put in place with regard to fishing gear. For this reason, the EESC recommends extending this directive to include lakes and rivers, by means of a European-wide strategy for more sustainable management of inland waters.


River contracts (18) are a widespread and highly successful example of best practice in Europe. They can prove very effective for managing inland waters in the event of hydrogeological and environmental risk. The strength of this tool lies in open governance that enables all public, private and organised civil society stakeholders to get involved at regional level. These experiences should be collated in a new European database, in order to facilitate organic and structured development throughout the EU. In line with the new Horizon Europe programme, according to which 35 % of the budget should be earmarked for climate-change and environmental measures, the Committee recommends that these contracts be a key prerequisite for access to certain European funds relating to research and innovation on environmental sustainability, as well as those set aside for territorial protection against hydrogeological and environmental risks (e.g. Interreg).


The Committee considers it fundamental to apply the directive in a coherent and coordinated way alongside other EU legislation in the field of water and waste: the Waste Framework Directive (19); the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (20); the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (21); and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (22). Particular attention should be paid to European regulations on waste management (23).


Proper waste management structures (e.g. separate collection of compostable waste so that it can be treated effectively and appropriately in recycling plants) are important, along with clear consumer information. Appropriate separation will also encourage the use of 3-D printing techniques, as plastics can easily be used as raw materials for creating new objects.


Although these are not SUPs, the Committee calls on the Commission to take account of the increasing volume of bio media filters found on many beaches after waste water management failures.


Digitalisation could be a powerful ally in the fight against pollution and in favour of a sustainable economy. The introduction of labelling and traceability systems for plastic products could represent added value with regard to waste management and recycling processes. The creation of a specific logo could strengthen consumer confidence, especially for products manufactured with secondary raw materials (24).


The Committee recommends that a common and high-quality framework for environmental certification be created. This initiative is fundamental in enabling companies to achieve the highest standards of sustainability, avoiding overlapping requirements and additional economic burdens.


The EESC is once more raising the issue of the different port systems in the EU (25). There are hundreds of small ports in Europe that represent a key factor in the development of the small local communities that owe their livelihood to the sea and fishing. The Commission proposal sets out a process of modernisation (of methods, technology and infrastructure) that, without the financial support of the European Union, can be carried out at local level only with difficulty. This process is fundamental in order to counteract depopulation while at the same time preserving both the unique nature of local productivity and the communities themselves.


The Committee recommends that funds raised via extended producer responsibility, based on Directive (EU) 2018/851, should also be used to renovate port infrastructure in line with the highest standards for waste collection and management. At the same time, the EESC considers it essential to involve institutions and civil society at local level, with a specific focus on small coastal towns (with fewer than 5 000 inhabitants), so that together they can find cheaper, mutual long-term solutions.


Together with the Commission, the EESC has a circular economy platform (26) which has already achieved significant results, facilitating collection and exchange of the abundant expertise and good practices existing among the various stakeholders already involved, and encouraging dissemination and reproduction thereof. This platform is a key tool which deserves to be more widely used.

Brussels, 17 October 2018.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  95 % of cigarette filters are made of plastic. https://www.noordzee.nl/hele-noordzeekust-schoon-2764-vrijwilligers-ruimen-11163-kilo-afval-op/

(2)  Beach litter item counts are internationally accepted as a way of measuring the composition of marine litter. The scientific community considers it a very reliable indicator for developing policies. The counting method is based on reports prepared by the Member States and compiled by the JRC as part of the implementation of the Framework Directive on the marine environment (2008/56/EC). Source of data: UNEP, 2017.

(3)  The islands of plastic are located in international waters and an agreement is needed at a global level in order to eliminate them. These islands have been formed over the years by marine currents, which gathered much of the plastic from developing countries (mainly in Southeast Asia).

(4)  SDGs Nos 3, 9, 12 and 14 (good health and well-being; industry, innovation and infrastructure; responsible consumption and production; life below water).

(5)  COM(2018) 28 final.

(6)  COM(2015) 614 final.

(7)  Directive (EU) 2015/720 (OJ C 214, 8.7.2014, p. 40). OJ C 214, 8.7.2014, p. 40.

(8)  OJ C 264, 20.7.2016, p. 98, OJ C 367, 10.10.2018, p. 97.

(9)  OJ C 283, 10.8.2018, p. 61.

(10)  OJ C 230, 14.7.2015, p. 33.

(11)  UNI EN 13432:2002 is a harmonised standard laid down by the European Committee for Standardization setting out the characteristics that a material must have in order to be defined as biodegradable or compostable.

(12)  OJ C 283, 10.8.2018, p. 61.

(13)  OJ C 209, 30.6.2017, p. 1.

(14)  OJ C 81, 2.3.2018, p. 22.

(15)  Directive 2004/35/EC sets out the ‘polluter pays’ principle. This means that a business that causes environmental damage bears the responsibility for that damage, and so it must take all necessary measures with regard to prevention or repair as well as covering all related costs.

(16)  OJ C 283, 10.8.2018, p. 61

(17)  PNUMA, Marine plastic debris and microplastics, 2016.

(18)  River contracts are an example of best practice that originated in France in the 1990s. In 2000, during the World Water Forum, their importance and usefulness were recognised. Initially, the river contracts were aimed at preventing hydrogeological risk. In recent years, they have become a fundamental tool in many EU countries for ensuring that inland waters are managed responsibly and sustainably by means of a bottom-up approach.

(19)  Directive 2008/98/EC.

(20)  Directive 1994/62/EC.

(21)  Directive 2000/60/EC.

(22)  Directive 91/271/EEC.

(23)  Directive 2008/98/EC.

(24)  OJ C 283, 10.8.2018, p. 61

(25)  OJ C 288, 31.8.2017, p. 68.

(26)  https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/en