No more synthetic textiles? The EU wants to stop the release of microplastics into the environment

The European Union is preparing new regulations and amendments to regulate another group of products in order to move towards a circular economy. In this context, it is also examining microplastic pollution and ways to prevent it. In addition, the CJEU has also issued a long-awaited judgment on the obligation to pay for the costs associated with the management of waste photovoltaic panels. The repeal of part of the Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) was prompted by an initiative from a Czech company.

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New policies for sustainable products

The European Commission has turned its attention to releasing further packages of proposals under the Green Deal to significantly improve energy efficiency, strengthen the circular economy and prevent “greenwashing”.

Product design is addressed in the proposal for Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, which aims to set requirements for products that make them more durable, reliable, reusable, upgradeable, repairable, maintainable, refurbishable, recyclable and energy and resource efficient. The regulation will list regulated products that will be required to have their own digital passport. This is to facilitate repair or recycling at the end of their useful life. Alongside this proposal, the Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Working Plan for 2022–2024 has been adopted, which expands the number of regulated products and tightens the criteria.

Since the consumption of textile products has a major impact on the environment, the European Union has decided to adopt a Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. With this ambitious document, the EU hopes to see innovation in recycling fibres and addressing the release of microplastics from textiles. What is also worth attention is the initiation of tax incentives for environmentally friendly behaviour by manufacturers. However, these measures are not specified and it will be entirely up to the Member States which ones they will eventually introduce and in what form.

Another sector that has a major impact on the environment is the construction industry. The regulation on construction products will therefore be revised to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible and, in turn, to make them as recyclable and refurbishable as possible. A digital passport will also be introduced for these products.

EU begins to explore ways to prevent unintentional release of microplastics from textiles

A new study by the European Environment Agency focuses on microplastics released from textiles. According to the study, washing, wearing and other handling of textiles have already released huge amounts of microplastics, over 14 million tonnes of which have settled on the seabed, and this figure is increasing every year. Although the European Union releases on average only half as many microplastics from synthetic materials as the rest of the world, the total weight remains unsustainable for the environment.

The EEA identifies three basic approaches as solutions to the situation. According to the EU, we have to start at the very beginning, i.e. the design and production of textiles. Natural fibres should be used instead of synthetic materials, and pre-washing should take place in special facilities so that any particles released are captured. Furthermore, special filters for washing machines and similar equipment and gentle washing and cleaning agents should be developed. The EEA concludes its study by focusing on the end-of-life treatment of textiles – better management of the textile industry should be introduced, including an innovative way of disposing of waste textiles. In the future, the environment should also be cleaned of the microplastics that have been released into it so far.

Court of Justice of the EU sets aside part of the WEEE Directive

The CJEU has delivered an important judgment in a preliminary ruling on the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive. This judgment sets aside part of the Directive – specifically, part of Article 13(1) – in so far as it imposes an obligation to finance the costs of the management of waste from photovoltaic panels placed on the market between 13 August 2005 and 13 August 2012.

The dispute was initiated by Vysočina Wind, a Czech company operating a solar power plant. The company considered that the Czech Republic had incorrectly implemented the Directive, causing the company to have to spend over CZK 1.6 million to finance the management of waste photovoltaic panels. The dispute went before the Supreme Court, which, because of doubts about the interpretation of EU law, decided to submit questions referred for a preliminary ruling.

The essence of the first question referred for a preliminary ruling was whether Article 13(1) must be interpreted in such a way that a Member State cannot impose, in its national legislation, an obligation to finance the costs of the disposal of photovoltaic panels placed on the market before 1 January 2013 on their users and not on their manufacturers. Accordingly, the CJEU had to address the question of whether the rule adopted by the Directive was retroactive and therefore contrary to the principle of non-retroactivity. In this case, the EU first left it to the Member States to decide on the costs of waste management, but then established a rule that those costs must be borne by the producers. Since it was not reasonable to expect producers to bear the costs even for solar panels already in circulation, the CJEU held that the application of Article 13(1) of the Directive was contrary to the principle of legal certainty and was therefore invalid to that extent. It follows that any action for damages brought against the Czech Republic in the same case will be dismissed as the Czech legislation was in accordance with EU law.

The answer to the second question addressed whether a Member State’s legislation is contrary to EU law if it was adopted before it. The CJEU briefly summarises that it is not, as such a situation cannot constitute a serious threat to EU law until the Directive has become part of the EU legal order.

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