1. Scope of the Paper
3. Major Entry Pathways for Plastics into Soils
3.1. Sewage Sludge
3.4. Mineral Fertilisers
4. Status Quo and Assessment of the Governance Effect of the Existing Legislation
4.1. Soil Protection Legislation
4.2. Fertiliser Legislation
4.2.1. EU Level
4.2.3. Specific Regulations for the Agricultural Use of Sewage Sludge
4.2.4. Specific Regulations for the Agricultural Use of Bio-Waste
4.3. Assessment of Governance Effects
5. Discussion—Enhanced Governance Options
- Environmental and fertiliser legislation aims to minimise inputs of plastics into the environment through command-and-control approaches at certain points, mainly by imposing legal limit-values for macroscopic impurities like plastic. However, the hazard prevention and precautionary measures aimed for in this context are designed in a comparatively punctual and non-comprehensive manner. Above all, limit values do not cover plastic particles of less than one or two millimetres.
- Nonetheless, it has been shown that extending and sharpening the existing legal instruments in various details is possible without major regulatory efforts. For example, the requirements for organic fertilisers contaminated with plastic could be tightened. Besides that, the intentional addition of microplastics, both during the processing of organic fertilisers and to improve mineral fertilisers, could easily be prohibited by command-and-control legislation in the near future.
- However, to only focus on this, which the current political, social and scientific debate on plastics regularly does, is most probably insufficient. Instead, it has been shown repeatedly that a key aspect of the future plastic governance is to consistently minimise plastic inputs effectively at the source. At the same time, there is an obligation under Art. 2 Para. 1 PA and human rights, which are based on an understanding of precaution, to phase out fossil fuels in not more than two decades, worldwide and in all sectors. Thus, when merging these two arguments, it becomes clear that no matter how incomplete the regulatory approach on plastics appears to be to date, the mere improvement of details is insufficient. Instead, a governance approach preferable at the EU level (and ultimately worldwide), that achieves the phasing out of fossil fuels is required.
- Elsewhere it has been shown that such a governance approach could be designed most effectively as quantity control instrument: Within the EU as an upstream emissions trading system that integrates all fossil fuels, takes old certificates out of the market and incorporates a cap that is aligned with Art. 2 Para. 1 PA. In addition, border adjustments for countries that do not choose to adopt a similar approach will be necessary [21,22,33,40,100]. It has furthermore been shown that the transnational character of fossil fuels, as well as typical governance problems of command-and-control law to limit quantities (such as rebound effects, sectoral and geographical shifting effects, problems of depicting and enforcement), could be addressed most effectively this way. Therefore, because of the diffuse load of plastic discharges, the excessive use of plastics, the difficulties in recycling and the combination of various environmental problems, effective plastic governance could be achieved in a joint approach that implements a quantity control on fossil fuels.
- This could significantly reduce plastic pollution at the source and thus help to gain plastic free organic fertilisers and thereby foster circular economy approaches in agriculture and healthy soils in the long term. And even if the phasing-out of fossil fuels was limited to other sectors, it would have an influence on plastics. As fossil fuels start to phase out of use for other applications, plastic production is likely to become more expensive. Part of the reason plastic is so cheap to produce is that it utilises otherwise mostly waste material from the fractional distillation of crude oil for fuels etc. . Nevertheless, a complete fossil phasing-out is more in line with Art. 2 Para. 1 PA (as well as other options such as plastic taxes).
- However, a phasing out for fossil fuels that would end the current, predominantly fossil-based plastics production, would also raise important follow-up questions. Plastics are not always easy to reduce or replace in many economic sectors due to scarcity of resources (e.g., land, fertiliser, etc. for bio-based plastic productions) and difficulties regarding technologies. Thus, occurring follow-up questions are not only of an economic and social nature, but also of an ecological nature. For example, only focussing on the phase out of fossil fuels might lead to a strongly increased demand for land for the production of bio-based plastics in very large quantities. This could, rather than reducing pressure on the environment, increase the existing agricultural problems and thus inhibit circular economy approaches. Therefore, the aforementioned fossil fuel regulation has to be combined with other quantity control elements for land use (and livestock farming to minimise overall land-use pressure) [21,22,33]. For example, forests would probably also have to be subject to quantity control legislation because many plastic substitutes are based on trees. However, at the same time, intact forests function as carbon sinks and are biodiversity hotspots and should, therefore, be preserved or managed sustainably. As a consequence, the regulation of fossil fuels for plastics (unlike in the electricity sector, for example) would probably not only trigger technical substitution, recycling and efficiency strategies. Moreover, it would also lead to frugality to a very considerable extent. Therefore, the regulation of plastics serves as a good example, which reveals that the current growth-based economic approach is facing outstanding questions if sustainability approaches that are in line with the Paris Agreement and human rights are pursued. This is particularly true since, in contrast to substitution and efficiency strategies, frugality strategies question in particular the growth orientation of modern economic activity (including all follow-up questions, for example in social security or the labour market ).
- Even if these legal steps were taken, there would still be a considerable need for regulation in plastics law. However, the current challenges would then be significantly reduced, not at least because a complete or even approximate substitution of today’s fossil-fuel-based with plant-based plastic quantities could hardly take place due to a shortage of available land. Nonetheless, the discharge of bio-based plastics into the environment—at least as long as they are not fully biodegradable, as is often the case today—is likely to pose similar problems as currently. The introduction of precautionary values for plastics on the basis of their persistence should, therefore, in any case, be continued to be discussed. Alternatively, there is the option of pricing biobased plastics or integrating this into a land-use pricing system that is to be further developed for various ecological reasons.
- The obligation to take far-reaching measures on plastic on the basis of human rights implies at the same time that such measures are legitimate when weighed against the fundamental rights of companies and consumers. The same applies to the question of whether purely national measures would be compatible with the free movement of goods in the EU. The nature of the quantity problem, however, argues in favour of EU-wide solutions and only subsidiarity in favour of national approaches, although the latter might be easier to implement (see in detail [21,102]).
- In view of the clear framing of the Paris objective as well as the limited enforcement power and precision of other international environmental agreements, a new separate anchoring of plastics in international law does not appear to be absolutely necessary (in favour of an international plastic agreement  as well as [103,104] regarding marine plastics). Notwithstanding this, international standards for the biodegradability of plastics have to be established, since the biodegradability even of non-fossil fuels plastics is doubtful. This is because, like (almost) all current environmental problems, the problems of plastics inhere a global dimension and, therefore, are best addressed transnationally.
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