Single-use plastic ban in the European Union

Single-use plastic ban in the European Union

4 February 2022 | Lynneric Potter, Food Packaging Technical Lead

The EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) 2019/904 is making big changes to food service packaging habits. With the EU member states taking a variety of approaches to put the directive into their national laws, the UK is also creating its own series of regulations to ban the use of single-use plastic.

The food and drink industry must therefore be proactive in finding alternatives that have the same functionality, are fully compliant, ready to beat the bans.

What does the Single-Use Plastics Directive cover?

The definition of ‘single-use plastic product’ given in the SUPD is:

“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 SUPD also defines ‘plastic’ as:

“a material consisting of a polymer as defined in point 5 of Article 3 of Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006, to which additives or other substances may have been added, and which can function as a main structural component of final products, with the exception of natural polymers that have not been chemically modified”.

In this regard, ‘single-use plastic products are designed to be used once or for a very short period, after which they can be disposed of. Some examples of this are already well-known, such as cotton bud sticks and straws but it also extends to plastic cutlery, plates and food containers.

The ban also captures any products that are labelled “bio-based” or “biodegradable”, as there are no specific legal definitions of these terms, and they can be misleading for consumers.

UK – four nations, big variations

Following Brexit, the UK is not required to bring the EU Directive into UK law but is working to reduce their use of single-use plastics and has created a series of regulations to ban their use.

Since October 2020, the sales of single-use plastic in the UK have been heavily restricted including the ban for all businesses, including manufacturers and retailers to sell or supply:

  • Straws and cotton buds to end-users
  • Drink stirrers to end-users and businesses

Since 3 July 2021, businesses had to stop the supply of:

  • Drinks products with single-use plastic straws attached to the packaging

Furthermore, additional bans and regulations are either planned or being considered:

  • April 2022 - Tax on plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled content
  • January 2023 - New EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) system in the packaging waste regulations to replace current PRN system
  • January 2023 - Deposit Returns System on drinks containers to be operational across England and Wales
  • January 2023 - Consistent Collections legislation to be in place standardising waste collections across England & Wales with potential product labelling implications (current information is at the review of responses level)
  • 2025: 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable
  • 2025: 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted
  • 2025: Take actions to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items through redesign, innovation, or alternative (reuse) delivery models.

These bans and regulations apply to manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and anyone who sells or supplies these items will be subject to a fine. However, exemptions do apply to the catering industry who can provide straws on request, and to those that have a disability. To note that, paper straws that have plastic-based adhesives, are also exempt and plastic materials that are filled with food at the point of sale in eat-in situations are classed as packaging.

How will single-use plastic be reduced?

It will be necessary for the food and drink industry to seek reusable, recycled alternatives or use other materials. It is expected that there will be a big shift towards paper-based materials for food service and on-the-go products. Regardless of material, any alternatives need to be considered fully, with respect to its life cycle and the environmental impact it has once its primary function is complete.

Considerations for the reusable materials

Consumers are being urged to reuse packaging and use recycled materials to reduce the amount of materials being used. Reusable coffee cups, refillable water containers, and refillable containers for use in supermarkets are all tools being used to encourage the consumer to reuse materials. However, there are impacts on material that is constantly being reused, dish-washed and microwaved:

  • Repeatedly reheating food in the same container, for example, may cause degradation of the container and there is the potential to transfer constituents to food during reheating.
  • The structure of the container may break down, resulting in handling difficulty, with staining or burning of food during reheating being a potential future food contamination risk.
  • Likewise, using drinks containers for hot or cold drinks may result in a build-up of contamination within the container as well as contamination of the outside from the environment and handling.
  • Repeatedly screwing a cap on and off a bottle could result in the consumption of small shards of the material which would have built up in the drink bottle.
  • Where people are encouraged to reuse bags, they can be at risk of cross-contamination from leaking packs, raw produce, and environmental contaminants.
  • The use of refillable containers may impact shelf-life, with packaging compatibility with the product being an additional consideration.

Since reuse packaging may apply to a plastic or alternative material, they should therefore be investigated in terms of integrity and safety.

How can we help?

Packaging experts at Campden BRI know that it is important to consider how a novel or alternative material will perform under different circumstances. For example, if a straw can maintain its strength and structure when it is placed in different liquids, or how paper-based trays and cups respond to grease and moisture, and if reusable containers can withstand the rigours of repetitive washing, decontamination, chilling, and heating.

Campden BRI can help with the transition from single-use plastics evaluating the reuse of materials, and the use of recycled or alternative materials, by assessing strength and integrity.

We can assess material strength by using puncture and elongation test methods, whilst analysing the co-efficient of friction to help understand how the material will run on the line. In addition, we can evaluate the on-the-go functionality of materials, by analysing their ease of handling, their ability to be repetitively washed and reheated, and their capacity to keep food warm. We can also look at grease and moisture resistance and repellence, and barrier testing, as well as taint assessment, to ensure that user experience standards are maintained. In addition, we can ensure that materials are safe for use in relation to food contact and the persistence and decontamination of biological agents, such as, Campylobacter, Clostridium, E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and viruses like Norovirus.

Contact us to discuss your innovative solutions and to discuss the possible impacts of using alternatives to single-use plastics for a range of applications.

Lynneric Potter

About Lynneric Potter

Lynneric Potter is a food packaging specialist within the Department of Food Manufacturing Technologies at Campden BRI where she has worked since 1999. Lynneric’s main activities involve consultancy and testing of packaging materials to ensure they are fit for purpose.

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How can we help you?

If you’d like to find out more about switching from single-use plastic packaging, contact our support team to find out how we can help.

support@campdenbri.co.uk +44(0)1386 842000

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