Europe’s ‘historic moment’ on plastics bags contested by industry advocates

The EU has agreed to curb the use of plastic bags in all member states.[Kerry Lannert/Flickr]

As lawmakers reached agreement this week to limit the use of plastic bags across Europe, industry voices warned that such rules will have a negative impact on trade in Europe’s internal market.

The ban could also lead to different standards in legislation in member states and ultimately, to a ban on other types of packaging, according to PlasticsEurope, the association of plastics manufacturers.

The European Parliament and the Council agreed on Friday (21 November) on EU-wide legislation obliging member states to reduce the use of plastic bags. The law will apply only to bags with a thickness below 0.05mm, because they are less reusable, and turn into waste more quickly.

‘Historic moment’

“This is a historic moment for all of Europe. For the first time ever, we have agreed on ambitious measures to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment,” said Margrete Auken, a Danish MEP from the Greens/EFA group, who negotiated the law on behalf of the European Parliament. 

The new agreement, which is obligatory in all EU countries, gives national governments two ways to implement it. Either reduce consumption by 90 lightweight bags per citizen by 2019, and 40 bags by 2025, or have a mandatory charge by 2018.

These reduction targets will “limit the negative impacts of plastics carrier bag littering on the environment and encourage waste prevention”, according to a statement posted on the Council’s website. Most of the plastics bags end up as waste in the EU waters, and it takes “hundreds of years before they are fully degradable”, the statement said.

Average consumption of single-use plastic bags was found to be at 176 bags per person per year in 2010.

Under the new law, member states can also introduce a complete ban on plastic bags at their own discretion. Such a decision, if implemented, is against the principle of free movement of goods, said PlasticsEurope.

A full prohibition will disrupt the trade flow between the member states, as it will limit the export-import possibilities of such goods, it warned.

“It opens the door for member states to ban not only plastic bags but other types of packaging,” said PlasticsEurope. “Such an inconsistent political framework […] would hinder investments and innovation and would create barriers to trade in packaged goods in Europe.”

Make users pay

The industry said that the best way to discourage the use of plastic bags is to make the users pay, like in Ireland or Denmark.

In Ireland, plastic bags accounted for 5% of litter before the levy was introduce in 2002, and then dropped almost overnight to around the current level of 0.25% in 2010, according to a Commission’s impact assessment.

“Charging for bags can have a positive effect on raising consumers’ awareness of the economic value of the resources that have been used to produce the bag,” said PlasticsEurope.

Under the new law, the governments have to organise public information campaigns to explain the environmental consequences of excessive use of lightweight plastic bags.

The new bill, despite receiving full support from the Parliament and the Council, was not backed by Tory MEPs. The proposal was seen as an interference in a national matter. Out of 60 votes in favour in the Environment Committee in the European Parliament, three legislators from the European Conservatives and Reformists abstained from voting. 

“Plastic bags blight our countryside and oceans and kill millions of marine animals each year. I’m deeply concerned that Conservative MEPs refused to support legislation to reduce their use across the EU,” said MEP Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat.

But the British government is already planning to introduce a 5p charge for plastic bags next year, said Bearder. “It makes sense for the rest of Europe to follow suit.”

The bill will now be formally adopted by the Council in December, and will be subject to a final vote in Parliament in early 2015. 

The Committee of the Regions expressed disappointment as EU Member States and MEPs came to an agreement which would ensure that by 2019 no more than 90 plastic bags per person per year will be used. The Committee – which represents Europe's local and regional authorities - had hoped for an outright ban of free plastic bags by 2020, compulsory EU targets for all Member States and the introduction of charges for all carrier bags to ensure an 80% reduction.

After the new European Commission considered pulling the entire package to reduce plastic bag usage, speaking on behalf of the Committee Cllr. Linda Gillham said, "There were hopes that governments would use the opportunity to rid Europe of the unnecessary over-use of plastic bags once and for all. But as theEuropean Commission was close to pulling the plug on the entire proposal, we are relieved - as this agreement is better than no agreement. The proposal to cut the average number of lightweight plastic bags each year from 198 to 90 per person by 2019 is a compromise. It is a recognition that the environmental, social and economic consequences of the 100bn tons of plastic bags thrown away each year in Europe are illogical and unacceptable".

The European Parliament voted on 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.

  • December, 2014: Adoption in the Council
  • Early 2015: European Parliament final approval

EU institutions


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