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The end of single-use plastics

Plastic straws, disposable utensils, and certain types of containers for food and drink will disappear from store shelves across the European Union by 3 July 2021 at the latest. The ban on their sale is one element in the EU’s battle with plastic waste flooding the world.

Moving to a circular economy

Reducing the generation of plastic waste is intended to modernise the economy of the European Union. In December 2015, in “Closing the loop—An action plan for the Circular Economy,” the European Commission announced that it was undertaking measures to “transition to a more circular economy, where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste minimised” (Commission Communication, COM(2015) 614 final, as we reported on more extensively here). This sustainable, low-emission, resource-saving economy should not only improve environmental protection, but first and foremost strengthen the competitiveness of undertakings from the EU.

The action plan drafted by the Commission identified four key fields for transitioning to a circular economy:

  • Production (both product design and production processes)
  • Consumption
  • Waste management
  • Boosting the market for secondary raw materials and water reuse.

The Commission also singled out five priority areas: plastics; food waste; critical raw materials; construction and demolition; and biomass and bio-based products.

The action plan also identified the most important measures that should be taken to reach a circular economy. One of them was to adopt a strategy on plastics.

A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy

This strategy (Commission Communication COM/2018/028 final) represents the first holistic approach covering the life cycle of products of this type. The broad strategy identifies key challenges connected with the production of goods containing plastics:

  • Growing demand for plastic packaging
  • Continued high rates of landfilling and incineration of plastic waste, generating significant CO2 emissions
  • Increasing quantities of plastic waste reaching seas and oceans.

This strategy devotes much attention to the problem of plastic products thrown away after one brief use. This is an area where the European Union has taken bold legislative action.

Single-Use Plastics Directive

The Single-Use Plastics Directive ((EU) 2019/904) was adopted on 5 June 2019. The directive applies to only three groups of items:

  • Single-use plastic products listed in the annex to the directive
  • Products made from oxo-degradable plastic
  • Fishing gear containing plastic.

As stated in the preamble, this scope of the directive results from the desire to solve a specific problem. Counts of beach litter commissioned by the EU found that plastics make up 80–85% of marine litter in the EU, with single-use plastics accounting for 50% of the total and fishing gear 27%. According to estimates, the new directive will cover about 86% of single-use plastics found on beaches in the EU.

The directive defines “single-use plastic product” as “a product that is made wholly or partly from plastic and that is not conceived, designed or placed on the market to accomplish, within its life span, multiple trips or rotations by being returned to a producer for refill or re-used for the same purpose for which it was conceived.” The directive also contains definitions for such concepts as “plastic,” “fishing gear,” and “oxo-degradable plastic.”

The directive imposes a range of obligations on member states. They should for example limit the use of products such as plastic beverage cups and food containers, primarily through the adoption of appropriate economic instruments. They must also ensure that single-use plastic products such as beverage containers and composite beverage packaging with caps and lids made of plastic may be placed on the market only if the caps and lids remain attached to the containers during the products’ intended use stage. Moreover, from 2025, PET bottles (manufactured from polyethylene terephthalate) placed on the market of member states must contain at least 25% recycled plastic, and at least 30% from 2030.

The directive includes provisions on the need for proper marking of single-use plastic products, introduction of selective collection of waste for recycling, and measures to raise consumer awareness. The member states must introduce regulations on extended responsibility of producers. This responsibility will apply not only to producers of cups and food containers, but also products such as lightweight plastic carrier bags, wet wipes, tobacco products with filters, and filters marketed for use in combination with tobacco products.

Ban on marketing of single-use plastics

The furthest-reaching obligation is set forth in Art. 5 of the directive, which requires the member states, from 3 July 2021, to prohibit the placing on the market of products made from oxo-degradable plastic and the following single-use plastic products:

  • Cotton bud sticks
  • Cutlery (forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks)
  • Plates
  • Straws
  • Beverage stirrers
  • Sticks for balloons
  • Food containers made of expanded polystyrene, i.e. receptacles such as boxes, with or without a cover, used to contain food which:
    • Is intended for immediate consumption, either on-the-spot or take-away
    • Is typically consumed from the receptacle, and
    • Is ready to be consumed without any further preparation, such as cooking, boiling or heating,

    including food containers used for fast food or other meals ready for immediate consumption, except beverage containers, plates and packets and wrappers containing food

  • Beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, including their caps and lids
  • Cups for beverages made of expanded polystyrene, including their covers and lids.


The Single-Use Plastics Directive undoubtedly represents a major step in the fight against growing quantities of plastic waste. The directive will impact not only manufacturers of the products covered by the directive, but all businesses using these products in their operations, particularly the food and service industries. The effectiveness of these solutions will be determined by the manner of implementation of the directive in the national legal systems of the member states, particularly the sanctions for violating these provisions. Polish lawmakers have yet to publish any legislative proposals for implementing the directive.

Martyna Robakowska, Environment practice, Wardyński & Partners