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22nd Jan 2021

EU commission seeks to reduce use of plastic bags

  • Plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade (Photo: United Nations Photo)

The European Commission Monday (4 November) tabled measures to reduce the use of thin plastic bags by 80 percent, with about 710,000 tonnes of them being thrown away each year.

Each EU citizen use almost 200 such bags - below 50 microns in thickness - yearly and, for the most part (89 percent of the time), throws them away after just one go.

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The practice is causing "enormous environmental damage," said environment commissioner Janez Potocnik.

He said the bags are a symbol of our "throwaway" culture, as the bags take hundreds of years to degrade "yet we only use them for a few minutes."

The commissioner is proposing that member states either set national reduction targets, use a levy or ban such bags altogether.

He pointed to Ireland as a "good example." After the Irish authorities introduced a levy, plastic bag litter dropped by 95 percent.

Of the 28 member states just 12 have introduce legislative measures to reduce the use of plastic bags, with Finland and Denmark seeing lowest plastic bag use - an estimated four per year per person.

Poles, Portuguese and Slovaks use over a hundred times more - 466 - plastic bags each year than their Nordic counterparts.

Potocnik's proposal leaves it up to member states to decide how and to what extent they will tackle the problem, with no timetable set for the wished-for overall target of an 80 percent reduction.

"Member states shall take measures to achieve a reduction in the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags on their territory within two years of entry into force of this directive," says the draft wording of the law.

Environment groups say this is wrong.

"The commission avoids setting any target at EU level and rather passes the buck to national authorities to take action," said the European Environmental Bureau in a statement.

Green MEPs have promised to tackle the lack of national targets when the law passes through parliament.

"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," said Danish Green Margrete Auken.

"The commission has missed an opportunity today but we will seek to ensure the Parliament redresses this," she added.

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