According to a recent report, German households are producing 15% more waste compared to before the pandemic as concerns around hygiene and safety overshadow the public's interest in sustainability. Additionally, with people enjoying outdoor spaces in the summer, plastic packaging waste is even more starkly noticeable in the environment. With common plastic items, and particularly to-go food packaging, constituting 10-20% of the waste found in parks, public places and streets in Germany, the urgent need to regulate these products cannot be understated. Long-term measures to avoid the excessive production and consumption of plastic in its various forms are clearly needed.
The Federal Cabinet’s decision to pass an ordinance on single-use plastic at the end of June this year comes as a welcome development. In pursuance of the European Union Directive (EU) 2019/904 dated June 5, 2019 concerned with the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, the ordinance, known as the Einwegkunststoffverbotsverordnung, prohibits the placing of disposable plastics on the market. A disposable plastic product is defined as a product made wholly or partially of plastic which is not designed, developed or placed on the market with the intention of being put through several product cycles during its life-cycle, by being returned to a manufacturer or distributor to be refilled or re-used for the same purpose for which it was manufactured.
Countering the "throwaway mentality"
The law prohibits placing certain disposable plastic products on the market, namely cotton swabs, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, stirrers, balloon bars, certain food and beverage containers, and beverage cups including their lids. The Minister for Environment, Svenja Schulze, has described this as a step in moving forward with the EU-wide intention to counter the “throwaway mentality” associated with using single-use products, that has become commonplace in consumption habits. The ordinance will be forwarded to the German Bundestag for review, and thereafter to the Federal Council for approval later this year. The regulation will then come into force next year in July.
The ordinance will advance the Federal Environment Ministry’s 5-point plan for less plastic and more recycling, and contributes to the implementation of certain United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This new regulation is being implemented through amendments to the existing circular economy law in the Kreislaufwirtschaftsgesetz, with violations punishable by fines or confiscation within the framework of the Kreislaufwirtschaftsgesetz. Responsibility for the actual implementation of the ban will fall upon the states (Bundesländer).
Reusable alternatives required
What exactly does the new ordinance mean for consumers? Additional costs could result from the production of products that will replace plastic with other material, but the law assumes that these are not likely to result in significant increase in consumer prices. This assumption is based on previous experience around the introduction of cotton swabs, stirrers, and cutlery made of wood or paper. The explanatory statement of the regulation notes that as the regulation does not come into force until July 3, 2021, manufacturers will have sufficient time to adapt their production to the new regulation.
The law does not provide guidance on alternative materials, and it remains to be seen how manufacturers will adapt to this regulation. Although the underlying rationale for the law focuses on encouraging consumers to halt their use of disposable plastic products, and “instead use the reusable alternatives already on offer and those that will be increasingly developed in the future”, it does not contain guidance on suggested re-use models and notes simply, that “[i]f reusable alternatives are not practical or not available, at least the consumption of plastics produced with intensive use of resources should be reduced” (own translation).
Going beyond the single-use plastic ban: avoiding and reducing plastic consumption
This change in law is naturally a positive development in the campaign to reduce plastic consumption. At the same time, a ban on single-use plastic must be supplemented with additional and more ambitious measures to reduce and avoid the excess of plastic in our lifestyles and strengthen re-use systems. The Ordinance makes a reference to the Environment Ministry’s 5-Point Plan, but other measures proposed in this plan, such as the avoidance of superfluous packaging and establishment of public drinking water fountains to reduce the incidence of disposable plastic water bottles, continue to be awaited. Hopefully, the recent proposal to introduce a tax on non-recycled plastic packaging waste in the European Union will advance the development and adoption of effective financial instruments for the regulation of plastic waste management.