In the fight against plastic pollution, new European legislation aims to reduce consumption of the top 10 most polluting single-use plastic products, as well as fishing gear containing plastic. Member States now have two years to implement this legislation at a minimum, or even a more ambitious national version. As of 2021, single-use plastic products that have sustainable alternatives will be banned from the EU market, such as plastic cutlery, plates, expanded polystyrene food containers and cotton buds.

While most EU countries waited for the European Council to rubber stamp the legislation, Portugal, Spain and Scotland have already demonstrated their political will to quickly reduce their plastic footprint and they are about to adopt legislation ahead of the official deadline. The Portuguese government is particularly determined to combat plastic pollution – especially single-use plastic – and to lead by example.

Since the beginning of the year, the Portuguese administration has begun to move towards a circular economy based on more sustainable and efficient use of resources, including the reduction of single-use plastic products. All state institutions, together with those indirectly overseen by the state, will stop using plastic bottles, bags and tableware. This not only forces them to use alternative materials but also necessitates the development of guidelines for public procurement. This, in turn, will foster a new approach and drive behavioural change in wider society. Portugal’s ambition is evident in its measures, which would see public procurement completely avoid plastic items for certain specific categories, unlike the single-use plastic legislation, which allows such items as long as they can be considered reusable.

In 2018, the Portuguese government adopted a law to implement incentives and deposit return systems for the collection of plastic beverage packaging. NGOs’ campaign expertise could provide significant added value in putting in place an efficient system if they are involved in the decision-making and implementation processes.

The government also announced a national ban on some single-use plastic products by 2020, such as plastic plates, cotton buds, straws and all oxo-degradable plastics. Should the law be adopted quickly, the bans foreseen under the European single-use plastics legislation would be transposed into Portuguese legislation a full year ahead the official deadline.

In April, the Portuguese parliament unanimously approved another ambitious legislative measure to ban ultralight plastic bags and styrofoam trays in the bread, fruit and vegetable trade.

An ad hoc working group was established to evaluate the application of tax incentives associated with the reduction of plastic consumption and other disposable plastic-based products of fossil origin. Coordinated by the Portuguese Environmental Agency, the group is composed of several national stakeholders, although it includes only a single NGO.Seas isk and its Portuguese members have recommended that the discussion should be opened up to the expertise of more NGOs and other stakeholders rather than being limited to representatives of the public administration. and the plastic industry.

The conclusions of the working group were to adopt fiscal incentives similar to those adopted for single-use plastic bags for other disposable plastic bags (such as thicker plastic bags or very light plastic bag products) in order to reduce their consumption. Another suggested measure was the prohibition of oxo-degradable plastics, which quickly fragment into microplastics.

The Single-Use Plastic Directive represents a paradigm shift in our throw-away society. All producers are now called upon to undertake joint efforts towards sustainable production. Consumers, too, have a role to play. Greater awareness of the impact of their choices will drive buyers to find and use more sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic products, thereby redirecting market demand.

However, these changes depend on the political will of governments to establish comprehensive sets of measures with ambitious targets, together with reliable systems for monitoring trends in market consumption and waste production.

On June 3, the seminar ‘Portugal and the reduction of Single-Use Plastics’ will be hosted by Sciaena, Portuguese member of Seas At Risk. Here, major national stakeholders will discuss next steps in implementing the Single-Use Plastics Directive.