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Plastics: Legal Updates for the Use and Report of Single-Use Plastics

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The Plastics Pollution

More than 9 million tons of plastic waste end up in our oceans each year, and without interventions, this number is expected to almost double to 17 million tons per year by 2025. (National Geographic) Plastic pollution soared from two million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at $522.6 billion, said UNEP. It is expected to double in capacity, by 2040. (UN)

The impacts of plastic production and pollution on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss, and pollution are a catastrophe in the making, the UN agency said, with exposure to plastics harming human health, and potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic, and neurological activity, while open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution.

By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use, and disposal, would account for 15% of allowed emissions, under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F) in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

More than 800 marine and coastal species are affected by this pollution through ingestion, entanglement, and other dangers, while around 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow each year into the ocean. This could triple by 2040.

China Updated its Law for Restricting Single-Use Plastic Products

On May 10, 2023, the Management measures for business operators to use and report disposable single-use plastic products (商务领域经营者使用、报告一次性塑料制品管理办法) has been published by the Ministry of Commerce of the People's Republic of China and the National Development and Reform Commission of the People's Republic of China. The law has been deliberated and adopted at the 45th ministerial meeting of the Ministry of Commerce on January 31, 2023, and with the consent of the Development and Reform Commission, it is hereby promulgated and shall come into force on June 20, 2023. A fine of CN¥10,000 yuan ~ CN¥100,000 yuan can be filed for violation of the law.

Scope: “Business operations” as referred to in these Measures are the use and reporting duties of the competent departments of commerce in accordance with national laws and relevant provisions, including commodity retail, e-commerce, catering, accommodation, and exhibitions. While "Disposable single-use plastic products" refers to finished products made of plastic that are not intended for reuse provided by business operators to consumers in their business activities.

The measures require commercial business operators to post, place, or set up slogans prohibiting the use of non-disposable single-use plastic products in conspicuous positions on their business premises or websites, and signs shall be clear and conspicuous. And the regular reporting on in-scope plastics use volume, and alternative plastics applied.

Recycled plastic: According to statistics from the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry, from the 50s of the 20th century to 2022, the cumulative global plastic production was close to 10 billion tons, of which less than 10% was recycled and 76% ended up as waste. In addition, at present, the main treatment methods for waste plastics are landfill, incineration, and recycling, and chemical recycling has not yet formed an effective production capacity. Chemical recycling of waste plastics is globally recognized as a low-carbon, clean, and sustainable recycling method.

While Degradable plastics refer to a class of plastics whose properties meet the requirements of use, have an unchanged performance during the shelf life, and can be degraded into environmentally harmless substances under natural environmental conditions after use, including bio-based degradable plastics (PLA, PBS, and PHA) and petroleum-based degradable plastics (PBAT and PCL). The raw materials of bio-based degradable plastics come from biomass, and the yield can be increased through technical means, so as to free the manufacture of plastic materials from dependence on non-renewable resources from raw material and reduce the pollution generated in the production process of petroleum-based plastics. According to the European Bioplastics Association, the global biodegradable plastics market was about 1.142 million tons in 2022 and is expected to reach 3.556 million tons in 2027.

Foreseeable Changes in the Market:

  • Retail operators should provide consumers with plastic shopping bags for a fee, and replace them with alternative product carriers, such as providing shopping baskets, shopping cart rentals, etc.;

  • E-commerce operators should give priority to the use of reusable and easily recyclable packaging, and promote the direct delivery of original e-commerce express shipments to reduce repackaging and emissions from excessive logistics;

  • E-commerce platforms should formulate platform rules to encourage operators within the platform to reduce the use of disposable plastic products in express packaging and takeouts;

  • Catering operators, when providing packaging or takeout services, should reasonably choose alternative products or legitimate single-use plastic products;

  • Accommodation services operators (such as hotels) shall not proactively provide any disposable plastic products to consumers;

  • The operator of the exhibition halls (such as museums) shall inform the exhibitors through the organizer of the exhibition activity to prohibit or restrict the use of some plastic products.

  • Slogans, links, or signs to the restriction of the use of single-use plastics shall be posted and displayed in obvious positions, and websites with the key message to actively encourage and guide consumers to use alternatives to single-use plastic products.

Compare to the last trial-based directive (商务领域一次性塑料制品使用、回收报告办法_试行) published in 2020, this updated legal document has distinctively differentiated between the “restrictions for the use of single-use plastics” and “the reporting requirements”. Restrictions for the use of single-use plastics are enforced upon commercial operators such as retailers, e-commerce, catering, accommodation, and exhibition operators. While the reporting of the volume of plastics (both degradable and non-degradable plastics) use, sales, or purchase amount is required from business operators such as retail establishments, e-commerce platform enterprises, and takeout business owners. When reporting on their plastics use, business operators ought to be consistent with their reporting methodology and it is encouraged to report on plastic alternatives used or recycled. Under the updated law, reports shall be submitted to the local county-level department of commerce twice a year, with the first deadline due on July 31, and the second one due on Jan 31 of the following years.

A Global Plastic Treaty

Globally, the Global Plastic Treaty negotiation is still undergoing, with plastic production forecasted to triple by 2060, the EU will call for legally binding provisions to address the production of primary plastics, with a view to making production and consumption sustainable. More than 1,000 delegates from governments, NGOs, industry, and civil society will discuss with the aim to conclude by the end of 2024 a new legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

During the closed-door negotiations on the second Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2), WWF (World Wide Fund) has observed that of the almost 180 states in attendance at the talks, 135 states are now specifically calling for binding global rules, which would apply to all countries equally rather than a voluntary agreement where governments have the option to pick and choose actions. Additionally, 94 states have called for the treaty to prioritise bans or phase-outs of problematic polymers, chemicals and high-risk plastic products.

According to the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), the INC-2 to develop a treaty to end plastic pollution was dominated by delay tactics and maneuvers to neuter any possibility of an effective treaty before negotiations of the text itself even began. Still, Member States made progress in the form of a mandate for the INC Chair, with the support of the Secretariat, to write a zero draft text of the treaty ahead of INC-3 (Plastic Pollution INC-3), which will take place at the end of 2023 (November 13-17) at UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

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