EU move to end use of thin plastic bags gathers steam


The European Parliament called yesterday (14 January) for a ban on the most hazardous and lightweight plastic bags by 2020, approving a strategy published by the EU Commission last year.

In a vote in Strasbourg yesterday (14 January), EU lawmakers approved a resolution on a Commission public consultation on plastic waste, which aims to curb the damage plastic waste wreaks on the environment, particularly in the oceans.

MEPs went beyond the European Commission's initial text, published in March, by introducing binding EU targets for collecting and sorting up to 80% of waste. 

Lawmakers called on the Commission to make proposals by 2014 to phase out by 2020 the landfilling of recyclable and recoverable waste, read a statement by the Parliament.

The resolution will form part of the EU executive's wide-ranging review of waste policy, expected by May this year.

“Parliament has shown the way to deal with the huge problem of the detrimental impact of plastic waste on the environment and human health. We said today that we want to change bad habits and account for our products, from production through to final disposal,” said Vittorio Prodi, the Italian Socialist and Democrat MEP who drafted the Parliament’s written resolution.

In November, the Commission released proposals to phase out the use of plastic bags with a maximum thickness of below 50 microns (0.05 millimetres), deemed as having the most destructive effect on ecosystems.

Vanya Veras, the secretary-general of the association Municipal Waste Europe, told EURACTIV in an interview that “in countries where there is separate collection and/or sorting of plastic wastes, the lightweight plastics are more difficult to sort and therefore are most often either landfilled or treated through energy recovery”.

They also contain often harmful chemicals known to pose a danger to marine life.

Veras said “in countries which landfill mostly and often do so in unmanaged landfills (dumps), this lightweight plastic is easily carried by wind and rain into the wider environment including the sea”.

To the plastics industry, the report showed the need to consider plastic as a valuable resource, which must makes its way back into the economy after first use.

“Plastics are a too valuable resource to be carelessly discarded or buried in landfills, as such we call for a strong enforcement of the current EU waste legislation to reduce to zero the amount of recyclable and high-calorific waste going to landfill”, said Karl Foerster, the executive director of PlasticsEurope, in a statement welcoming the report.

MEPs stressed that plastic recycling contained unexploited economic potential as the level of recycling remained low, at 25%. The European Commission has said that enforcing EU waste rules could create 400,000 jobs across the now 28-country bloc.

In the parliamentary statement, MEPs said such enforcement could save the EU economy €72 billion a year.

Incineration complementary but not encouraged

The Prodi report also contained calls for the EU to discourage incineration, unless all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Burning waste for energy recovery can hinder the development of recycling and has been linked to causing more carbon emissions than coal-fired power plants, a resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe previously told EURACTIV.

The plastics industry said incineration should “remain a preferable option” to landfilling when sustainable recycling poses is too challenging. “Energy recovery is presented as a complementary option for those plastics that cannot be sustainably recycled as plastics waste is not a homogeneous material”, Foerster said.

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.

Analysts credit Denmark and Finland’s awareness campaigns and introduction of charges for the reduction in plastic bag use.

Margrete Auken, the Danish MEP drafting the Greens’ report on EU legislation on single-use plastic bags, said: "Parliament has today made clear the need for the EU to do more to tackle the pervasive problem of plastic waste and its impact on health and the environment.

"With crucial legislation on single-use plastic bags in the legislative process, this report provides a strong signal to this end, calling for a radical reduction and where possible a phase-out of plastic bags. These bags are very low-hanging fruit when it comes to reducing unnecessary plastic waste, and its impact on the environment. As a number of member states have already shown, the use of these bags can be significantly reduced with effective policy-making.”

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.

  • May 2014: European Commission to publish its review of waste policy

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