Brussels looks to cut plastic bag use

Plastic bag next to the A140 motorway in Suffolk, United Kingdom [Geograph Project]

Plastic bag next to the A140 motorway in Suffolk, United Kingdom [Geograph Project]

The European Commission has released a series of measures to reduce the use of lightweight plastic bags in the European Union and limit the negative impacts on the environment.

The Commission intends to achieve this by reducing littering and encouraging waste prevention and the more efficient use of resources, with positive knock-on effects for the economy.

The way to make this happen, the Commission says, is to revise the packaging and marine strategy directives to limit EU consumption of thin plastic bags, defined as having a thickness of below 50 microns (0.05 millimetres).

The EU executive argues that thin plastic bags pose a greater threat to the environment than thicker ones, as they are reused less often, are tossed aside more often and break apart more easily.

The bags contain often harmful substances known to be dangerous to marine life, in particular, the Commission says.

Announcing the proposals, Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said: "We're taking action to solve a very serious and highly visible environmental problem. Every year, more than 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe, causing enormous environmental damage.”

Own measures

The Commission estimates that every EU citizen uses some 200 plastic bags every year. Some 90% of these are estimated to be lightweight bags.

In Denmark and Finland, the yearly average consumption of thin plastic bags is only four per person, compared to 466 in Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.

Some EU countries have managed to greatly reduce their use of plastic bags, for example by introducing pricing in supermarkets and awareness campaigns.

The Commission recommends that member states follow the example of Denmark and Finland and introduce mandatory charges and, possibly, taxes. But the countries are free to choose their own measures, as long as they achieve the aim of cutting plastic bag use.

If other countries introduced strong legislation, the EU could reduce its use of plastic bags by as much as 80%. 

The EU executive justifies its right to legislate on plastic bags as they create cross-border problems, including marine pollution.

The proposals now head to the European Council and Parliament for debate and possible adoption.

EuroCommerce, a trade association representing large retail chains such as Carrefour, Tesco and Ikea, criticised the Commission’s proposal for ignoring existing voluntary initiatives in the distribution sector.

“Improvements have already been made in the last decade, by providing consumers with alternatives,” EuroCommerce said in a statement, citing reusable bags made of recycled material and voluntary initiatives to encourage consumers to modify their behaviours. Together, EuroCommerce says these actions have reduced the consumption of plastic bags from an average of 500 for every EU citizen in 2008 to 198 in 2010.

“Today’s proposal does not reward member states or companies that have already done something to reduce their consumption of lightweight carrier bags,” EuroCommerce said. “On the contrary, new reduction efforts are demanded, even for countries that are best-in-class. The commerce sector also questions the need for a European policy specifically addressing plastic bags as they are considered to be packaging material, the rules of which are up for review in 2014.”

The European bioplastics industry hailed the Commission’s initiative as “an important first step” towards greater sustainability of plastic bags, recommending an exemption of bioplastics from any measures aimed at curbing their use.

“Bioplastic shopping bags ensures that they have a lower carbon footprint than fossil-based bags, which helps to reduce CO2 emissions,” said François de Bie, Chairman of the association European Bioplastics “Exempting bioplastics, due to their environmental performance, from any measures intended to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags should be considered,” he added.

De Bie particularly welcomed a proposed measure allowing EU countries to derogate from article 18 of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), saying it would finally validate the Italian plastic bag law, which promoted the use of compostable plastic bags. “This law banned fossil-based lightweight plastic carrier bags, and allows only single use bags that are compostable according to EN 13432 to be utilised,” De Bie said.

The Greens in the European Parliament were less enthusiastic. While they welcomed the Commission’s “long overdue” initiative on plastic bags, they said the Commission did not go far enough on imposing targets for EU member states.

“The failure to set out clear targets for reducing lightweight plastic bags will clearly undermine the prospect of ensuring a reduction across the EU,” said Danish MEP Margrete Auken, the Green’s environment spokesperson. “Instead, the Commission is leaving it open to member states to decide how and to what extent they seek to reduce plastic bags.”

“While member states should be able to choose how to reduce plastic bag use - whether through bans or levies - there should be obligatory reduction targets, otherwise only those member states that want to act will do so.”

The European Union's revised Waste Framework Directive introduces a binding 'waste hierarchy' defining the order of priority for treating waste.

The waste hierarchy favours prevention of waste, followed by reuse, recycling, and recovery, with waste disposal only a last resort.

To comply with the directive, EU member states are obliged to draw up specific waste management plans after analysing their current waste management situations.

Countries are also required to establish special waste prevention programmes by the end of 2013, in a drive to break the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts associated with the generation of waste.

  • 2014-2015: Proposed revision of Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to be discussed in Parliament and Council.

Subscribe to our newsletters