EU lawmakers vote to reduce 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 Parliament voted yesterday (16 April) in favour of curbing the use of thin plastic bags in the EU by at least 80% by 2019.

The draft laws call for EU countries to first reduce their consumption of the bags by 50% by 2017, compared to 2010 figures.

The new law will apply to lightweight plastic bags that are thinner than 50 microns, which are deemed the most polluting form of bag. They are the type of bag most prone to littering and can easily break apart, causing damage to the environment and ocean wildlife, in particular.

The stomachs of 94% of all birds in the North Sea area contain plastic, according to European Commission statistics.

EU lawmakers recommended using taxes and levies, marketing restrictions and bans to curb their use, preventing shops from giving bags out for free. The draft rules exclude very light bags, used to wrap loose foods, such as raw meat, fish and dairy products. Member states can choose their own measures, as long as the contribute towards the aim of reducing carrier bag consumption.

“MEPs have today voted to significantly strengthen draft EU rules aimed at reducing plastic bag use and waste, notably to include obligatory European reduction targets and a requirement that plastic bags come at a cost,” said Margrete Auken, a Danish Green MEP, who is charged with steering the legislation through the Parliament.

A strong majority of MEPs, 539, voted in favour of her report, which is based on the European Commission’s proposal released in November. 51 MEPs voted against and there were 72 abstentions.

The Commission proposals revise the packaging and marine strategy directives. Every EU citizen uses about 200 plastic bags every year, some 90% of which are lightweight, the EU executive estimates.

Janez Poto?nik, the European commissioner for the environment directorate, which drafted the original proposals, said the aim of the draft laws was to tackle “an emblematic issue of our consumer society”. The directorate is working on separate measures to tackle the environmental problems associated with other forms of plastic.

"A ban on plastics bags is not the solution to tackle the problem of irresponsible disposal. The Parliament’s plan leads to a situation in which some countries ban plastic bags, while others allow them. Such a patchwork of rules is against the idea of the existing legislation and detrimental to the free movement of goods in Europe: is this the beginning of the end of a success story?” said Karl-H. Foerster, executive director of PlasticsEurope, a trade association.

The European People’s Party MEP responsible for the Directive, Radvil? Mork?nait? Mikul?nien?, said: “In countries such as Ireland, for example, that introduced the compulsory 'pay-as-you-throw' tax to tackle plastic waste, the situation has notably improved. However, the EPP Group’s main aim was a reduction, not a complete ban, of plastic bags in general.”

MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe spokesperson on the the plastic bags proposal, said: "Ireland and Denmark have proven that with a tiny levy a 90% reduction of usage of plastic bags can be achieved within months. So, let's do so in the whole EU. It is a huge environmental problem, very easy to solve, and people care a lot about it. So let us not waste more time, but quickly move on and serve our citizens and our environment."

Monica Verbeek, executive director of Seas at Risk, a marine environment NGO, said: “Today, MEPs have taken a significant step for the protection of the marine environment, and have put the wishes of European citizens before those of industry groups. In doing so in their last sitting, they’ve contributed to a positive legacy of action on environmental issues. We are nonetheless disappointed that biodegradable plastics have been included in the measure, as they have not been shown to be a solution to the problems of waste or marine litter.”

The European Commission released the proposals to curb the use of thin plastic bags in November 2013, arguing that they cause more damage to the environment than other forms of carrier bag.

An estimated 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe every year.

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.

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