Tuesday

19th Sep 2017

EU to curb use of thin plastic bags

  • In several EU countries, plastic bags are handed out in shops free of charge. (Photo: Polycart)

The European Parliament has voted to limit the use of thin plastic bags, the most commonly used ones in the EU.

EU citizens are estimated to use almost 100 billion plastic bags per year, or roughly 200 per head per year.

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  • Every year, the equivalent of around 8 billion plastic bags end up in the environment. (Photo: Zainub Razvi)

The vast majority of those are lightweight bags, thinner than 0.05 mm. They are often used only once as they are prone to ripping and about 8 billion bags is estimated to end up as litter in the environment.

Under the new rules adopted on Tuesday, EU countries will be forced to make sure that by 2019, lightweight bags are no longer given to shoppers for free.

They can also opt for other measures to ensure that by 2020, the average use per citizen is not more than 90 bags a year, and six years later is no more than 40 bags per person.

Danish Green MEP Margrete Auken, who steered the legislation through parliament, admitted the law could have been “stronger” and less complicated. But she opted for a compromise deal with national governments in order to avoid the commission pulling the legislation - something that could have happened if there was no unanimous deal.

“I was more or less forced to keep the unanimous Council. If we had just a little split there, I'm sure the commission would have spoiled it”, she said.

In November last year, when the new commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker took office, commission vice-president Frans Timmermans flirted with the idea of scrapping the plan as it had deviated too far from the original proposal.

Pricing bags

Ireland put a tax on plastic bags in 2002 and has reduced their use by 90 percent. According to EU figures, Irish people used about 18 'single use' bags in 2010, as opposed to the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia, where that number was estimated at 466 per person.

“Perhaps some citizens in some member states are more environmentally aware than others”, EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella told this website adding that education and awareness campaigns can change that in “a few months, a few years”.

However, MEP Auken would advocate pricing.

“If you price all plastic bags, then within very short time you will have obtained the goal. … I will absolutely recommend member states to use this easy way”, said Auken.

The price will depend on the spending power of the member state, but Auken said €0.50 would be a good price in a country like hers, Denmark.

Vella did not want to advocate one option over the other.

“Paying for the plastic bags works. Awareness and educating the consumer also works and I think providing an alternative to plastic bags” also works, he said.

A lightweight bag is a bag thinner than 50 microns (or 0.05 millimetres). Bags that are thinner than 15 microns – called 'very lightweight' – are exempt from the directive as they are often used to carry fruit and vegetables.

“It's very easy to replace the lightweight plastic bags. But it's a little bit more difficult to replace very lightweight [bags], which have hygiene purposes”, said Auken.

However, it is unclear how many of the 8 billion bags that are discarded are lightweight and how many are very lightweight.

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