European citizens using ‘198 plastic bags’ each per year

Reduction rather than replacement of plastic bags is far more beneficial to the environment, argues Judith Merkies.

By Judith Merkies MEP

11 Mar 2014

Kilometres of littered coasts and a plastic patch the size of the US. These images show the use of plastic is untenable. One of the most stubborn culprits is the single-use plastic bag. Due to their flimsiness, plastic bags are hard to collect and easily carried off by the wind. Yet, countries that have implemented measures have achieved admirable results. Next month, the European parliament will adopt measures to reduce the supply of what is deemed ‘the most dangerous creature in nature’.

According to an impact assessment by the European commission presented last autumn, European citizens use on average 198 plastic bags per year. Of the 198 bags; 90 per cent are single-use lightweight plastic bags, the type of bag that sustains the throw-away economy.

This situation is not efficient in either economic or environmental terms. Markets fail to address the external costs of plastic bags, casually distributed for free. The costs are carried by the fishery industry, the tourism sector and, in a broader sense, the environment. Yet, increased attention for the issue combined with the great public support for EU action on plastic waste, show that the measures are widely supported. It is time to turn the tide.

Reading through the voluminous impact assessment, one might get the impression that the commission concurs with this statement. The assessment highlighted emphatic evidence for the adverse economic and ecological cost of the small bag, substantiated with splendid figures and data. However, the commission has failed to follow through, putting forward some very weak proposals. No targets, no charges, in short, none of the measures that have proven to work were tabled.

"I think the starting point should be reduction. Biodegradable bags can be an opportunity if they do not require the establishment of a separate waste stream"

This leaves a chance for the European parliament to do better. We cannot just wait and hope that plastic bags reduce automatically, because the impact assessment clearly shows the contrary. Adequate measures are paramount. A reduction target is the minimum needed. We should commit to leaving some room for member states to choose their preferable way to meet this target.

It is very clear that charges are the most evident and effective way to achieve a reduction. Levying a charge at the point of sale will also be a welcome additional income model for the retailer, who can take the revenue made per bag. The customer, in turn, is then incentivised to reflect on the need for a bag.

A contentious point in this file are biodegradable bags. Some stakeholders are very vocal on the opportunities these bags offer to industry and the circular economy. Others lambast the idea, saying plastic bags will be replaced by ‘less harmful’ bags instead of being reduced. I think the starting point should be reduction. Biodegradable bags can be an opportunity if they do not require the establishment of a separate waste stream.

Furthermore, the industrial nature of production makes the impact on the environment bigger than simply reducing the amount of bags. And since the latter has been proven possible, we owe it to our citizens and all people affected by the escalation of plastic waste to adopt measures that lead to fewer bags overall.