Micro plastics Dangerous substances Marine littering


Baltic Eye comments on the Plastics Strategy

Text: Hanna Sjölund and Marie Löf

Today the European Commission’s Plastic Strategy was presented, a much awaited strategy foregone by intense discussions, numerous consultations and conferences.

The first legislative initiative to be expected from the Commission regards single-use plastics, following the same model as for the recently implemented directive on light-weight plastic bags. This is an important category to address, as single-use plastics is a common type of litter found on beaches.

  • In the case where these plastics are not necessary, we need a reduction, and where they are deemed necessary but constitute a large risk of littering, the material need to be environmentally sustainable.
  • Another aspect that should have been further explored in the Strategy is EU wide measures to promote deposit return schemes for plastic beverage containers.

The second legislative initiative in the Strategy is a proposal for a new directive for port reception facilities, aiming to improve the ports' environmental operations by ensuring that more waste is delivered on shore instead of being dumped at sea.

  • This is a first concrete and much needed step towards reducing marine litter. Even more so since it also contain the explicit intention to include fishing gear otherwise lost or abandoned at sea, a litter category known to cause harm and death to many sea living animals.

Two likely restrictions are presented:

The first one is on intentionally added microplastics in products. Microplastics are foreseen to be restricted under REACH, with ECHA initiating the restriction process in the coming 12 months. This is a logic step following the numerous national initiatives to ban microplastics in products, foremost rinse-off cosmetics.

  • The formulation in the Strategy opens up for an expanded restriction beyond cosmetics. It will be important to address micro- and nanoplastic particles, regardless of their function in the products, i.e. not only focus on microplastics as cleaning and exfoliating agents.

The second restriction is on oxo-degradable plastics, which are plastics specifically designed to fragment much easier than conventional plastics. It is logical and welcome that the Commission now focuses on such a restriction. Plastics that only break down to smaller particles, microplastics, is not a sustainable solution to the problem with marine plastic litter.  

  • In order for future plastic use in the EU to be as marine friendly as possible, the Strategy should lead to further development of standards for acceptable degradation for all new materials. These standards need to take environmentally relevant environmental conditions into account, since degradation times for biodegradable plastics in sea water can differ greatly depending on for instance temperature and light. In the cold, dark and brackish waters of the Baltic Sea, degradation times can be very slow.

On the whole, the newly presented Plastics Strategy has a strong focus on reuse and recyclability. Which is welcomed. But from an environmental and marine perspective there are other major aspects of marine plastic litter - such as measures against a wide range of microplastic sources - that need to be further addressed. 

Further reading: Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre's answer to DG Environments consultation on reducing marine litter: single use plastics and fishing gear