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European Citizens Call for the Ban of All Single-use Plastic Products in Europe

On 29 July 2019, Commission Decision 2019/1268 on the proposed citizens' initiative entitled ‘Let's put an end to the era of plastic in Europe’ was published in the Official Journal of the EU. It is noted there that, on 3 July, the citizen’s initiative for the revision of EU Directive 2019/904, namely, the EU Directive on the impact of certain plastics on the environment was registered by the European Commission. It aims at the adoption of even more radical measures to deal with the problem of littering and plastic pollution in the oceans and seas. The organisers of the initiative have now one year to gather one million supporters in order to require the Commission to analyse the proposed course of action.

On 3 July 2019, the European Commission registered a citizen’s initiative entitled “Let’s put an end to the era of plastics in Europe”. The organisers of the initiative call on the Commission to revise Directive 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, also known as the single-use plastics (or “SUP”) Directive. According to them, the legislative act should ban all single-use plastics in Europe, i.e., plastic products intended for single use only.

The authors of the initiative state that although “the European Union already exceeded the limit of the resources that the planet can provide to it”, it does not carry out any profound change in its policy. Plastic, they say, is symptomatic of this “stubborn refusal to face the facts, which is at odds with the needs of the environment”. Hence, they call for the banning of all plastic packaging and bottles by 2027, as part of the solution to the environmental problem.

The SUP Directive was published in the EU Official Journal on 12 June 2019. It aims at reducing the consumption of single-use plastic products and at incentivising recycling. This is to be achieved by measures ranging from outright bans on certain products, to consumption reduction measures, extended producer responsibility obligations, product design requirements, labelling, and/or awareness raising measures in the case of others. As a result, producers will bear significant additional costs even for products which they can continue to market to consumers.

The scope of the SUP Directive encompasses products which fall within the definition of “single-use plastic products”. This definition covers products made either wholly or partly from plastic. Whether a product is classified as “single-use” depends on whether the product’s design suggests that the product can be re-filled and/or is intended for use more than once.

Despite the definition, only those SUP products that are listed in the Annex of the Directive fall subject to its requirements. In addition, only those limited number of products mentioned in Part B of the Annex face an outright ban. These include plastic plates and cutlery (including chopsticks). Plastic bags, for example, are not listed in Part B. As for plastic bottles, only those “made of expanded polystyrene” fall within Part B.

In order for the SUP Directive to become applicable, its provisions must be transposed into national law by the Member States. The time period granted to them to finalise this process will be two years after the Directive enters into force, i.e., by 3 July 2021. The European Commission is also mandated to publish guidelines, including examples of what is to be considered a single-use plastic product within the meaning of the Directive, by 3 July 2020.

At this stage, the Commission has only analysed the legal admissibility of the citizen’s initiative. In its decision, the EU executive recalls that it has the power to take legal action with the purpose of preserving, protecting and improving the quality of the environment. The initiative, therefore, does not manifestly fall outside the framework the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act for the purpose of implementing the EU treaties and is neither manifestly abusive, frivolous or vexatious nor manifestly contrary to the EU’s values.

The decision declaring the registration of the initiative entered into force on 26 July 2019. This started a one-year process of collection of statements of support. Should the initiative receive one million signatures from at least seven Member States in this time period, the Commission will be bound to take action: at a minimum, analyse it and respond to it, explaining the reasons for the outcome of the request.

European citizens' initiatives were introduced by the Lisbon Treaty with the aim of enabling EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies. They were launched in 2012 upon the entry into force of the European citizens' initiative Regulation, which implements the Treaty provisions. In 2018, the European Parliament and the Council agreed on a reform, proposed by the European Commission, to make the European citizens' initiative even more user-friendly. The revised rules will thus become applicable as of 1 January 2020.

Meanwhile, the process has been simplified and a collaborative platform offers support to organisers of initiatives. As a result of the efforts to increase direct democracy, a 30% rise of registered citizens’ initiatives has been seen under the Juncker Commission (i.e., 38 registrations as compared to 29 under the previous Commission). Moreover, only 5 citizens’ initiatives were not registered under the current Commission, compared to 20 under the previous mandate.

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