Tuesday

25th Apr 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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • 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.

Interview

Timmermans: 'The toughest job I've ever had'

"In terms of trying to really change things - it is the toughest job I have ever had", says EU commission vice-president Frans Timmermans as the executive approaches its first 100 days in office.

Scrapping of environmental plans 'alarming'

A group of 10 environmental NGOs are “deeply concerned” by draft European Commission plans to scrap proposals aimed at improving air quality and reducing waste.

Member states vary in EU 'polluter pays' rules

An EU directive aimed at supporting the "polluter pays principle" has resulted in a patchwork situation, but the European Commission is not yet ready to propose a change.

Column / Crude World

Nord Stream 2: The elephant in the room

The European Commission should provide a thorough impact assessment of Nord Stream 2, a project that appears to go against all of its Energy Union objectives.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDeveloping Independent Russian-Language Media in the Baltic Countries
  2. Swedish EnterprisesReform of the European Electricity Market: Lessons from the Nordics, Brussels 2 May
  3. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  4. Counter BalanceCall for EU Commission to Withdraw Support of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline
  5. ACCAEconomic Confidence at Highest Since 2015
  6. European Federation of Allergy and Airways60%-90% of Your Life Is Spent Indoors. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You?
  7. European Gaming and Betting AssociationCJEU Confirms Obligation for a Transparent Licensing Process
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region and the US: A Time of Warlike Rhetoric and Militarisation?
  9. European Free AllianceEFA MEPs Vote in Favor of European Parliament's Brexit Mandate
  10. Mission of China to the EUXinhua Insight: China to Open up Like Never Before
  11. World VisionViolence Becomes New Normal for Syrian Children
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsTime to Turn the Tide and End Repression of Central Asia's Civil Society