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Keep business moving: What the Single Use Plastics Directive means for UK businesses

In light of the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the UK Government has postponed the ban of single use straws, cotton buds and beverage stirrers, that was due to take effect this month, until October 2020. The postponed implementation does not, however, give much scope for businesses to take their foot off the pedal as the new legislation is only a small part of an EU-wide drive to curb single-use plastic. Forward planning to secure future compliance remains critical.

In May 2019, the EU adopted the Single Use Plastics Directive 2019/094 (“the Directive”). However, as this Directive was adopted before the end of the current transition period for departure from the EU (due to end in January 2021), its provisions are still directly applicable to UK businesses. Though the UK Government will be able to amend provisions of the Directive after the end of the transition period, given the increasing public pressure for the government to take a strong stance on environmental issues it is unlikely that the UK will move too far from Directive provisions.

The Directive aims to address the unprecedented levels of marine pollution caused by plastics, which currently account for 85% of marine litter.[1] The Directive imposes outright bans and decreased availability of certain single use plastic products and also imposes increased producer responsibility.[2]

The Directive applies to plastics that are most frequently found on beaches as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear. The Directive is concerned primarily with those items that are intended to be used once (or only a few times) before they are thrown away, including single-use paper items with plastic lining, such as conventional ‘takeaway’ coffee cups. Plastics that are covered by the Directive can be split into three categories.[3] Different measures apply to different plastic products:

  • Products with alternatives readily available:
    • The Directive imposes a complete ban on plastics for which there are already suitable alternatives by mid-2021. Such products include plates, sticks for balloons and cutlery.[4]
  • Products with currently less widely available alternatives:
    • The Directive imposes an obligation to reduce consumption of products such as beverage cups and food containers by 2026.[5]
  • Products already covered by existing EU legislation:
    • The Directive aims to strengthen and complement measures already imposed by other EU legislation for these products. Measures such as market restriction, product design, marking/ labelling requirements and awareness raising are all stipulated under the Directive.

The Directive also limits the use of products that have been found to pollute marine environments, but do not fall into any of the three categories, through marketing/ labelling requirements, awareness raising measures and extended producer responsibility schemes.

With such far reaching scope, the Directive will have a significant impact on a wide range of businesses including manufacturers, retailers and importers. It will also impact on smaller businesses delivering food and drinks to consumers, for example, which (in the absence of cost effective replacements) will find themselves without access to products which are essential for their day to day operation.

Market wide bans of some single use plastics and extended producer responsibility in particular will necessitate innovation and adaptation in order to enable businesses to operate without increased cost: UK businesses must be aware that switching to ‘biodegradable’ or ‘bio-based’ single use plastics will not offer a solution to the restrictions under the new Directive.[6] UK businesses must also consider measures that will mitigate against reputational and legal risk that will arise from both domestic and EU legislation. Careful planning now, including a full review of existing supply chains and product alternatives, to prepare for the introduction of the ban will place businesses in the best position to adapt to the pending changes.

[1] Commission Staff Working Document, Impact Assessment, Reducing Marine Litter: action on single use plastics and fishing gear. European Commission May 2018.

[2] Article 3(1) of 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 the producer for refill or re-used for the same purpose for which it was conceived.

[3] Policy briefing, Unfolding the Single-Use Plastics Directive. Zero Waste Europe May 2019. Available at:

[4] A full list can be found in Part B of the Annex to the Directive.

[5] A full list can be found in Part A of the Annex to the Directive.

[6] Recital 11 of the Directive states that single use plastics labelled as bio-based and biodegradable are covered by the Directive.