EU-wide ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags can lower waste

Europe-wide targets are needed to stem the overuse of plastic bags, argues Vittorio Prodi.

By Vittorio Prodi MEP

11 Mar 2014

In 2010, around 100 billion plastic bags were placed on the EU market, eight billion of these were littered, and only six per cent were recycled. To address this challenge, in November 2011, and again in 2012, I formally asked the European commission to revise the packaging and packaging waste directive.

I suggested a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags and reiterated the message in my report on the European strategy on plastic waste which was adopted in January last year by the plenary.

After many debates and impact assessment studies, the commission has finally put an 'idea' for the reduction of lightweight plastic carrier bags in member states on the table.

I said 'idea', because it is more a theoretical, cautious suggestion, than a concrete legislative decision. We asked for robust measures to end the floating of 80 million tonnes of plastics in the oceans; we are worried about plastics' dangerous components entering the food chain and the consequences for human and animal health.

We get, instead, an invitation to member states to 'dare' to reduce, through whichever means they deem appropriate, the consumption of lightweight shoppers, thinner than 50 micron, which is 0.05 mm.

What about the other plastic bags, the thicker ones? They can still be consumed and littered? They can still float on our seas for decades? What about the dangerous oxo-degradable plastic bags?

New types of plastic can now help reduce damage to the environment and health related risks. Besides being bio-based, they are also truly biodegradable, based on the only existing standard of biodegradability, and bio-compostable.

Briefly, they represent a sustainable solution. We need to promote them but we still lack the definition of other standards, on recyclability and compostability.

I wish the commission had been more ambitious in this revision. It could have, for instance, tackled all plastic packaging, which represents 40 per cent of all plastic waste. In the absence of clear targets and rules, member states will take their own measures to reduce littering but this will not help the harmonised implementation of environmental rules.

Quite the contrary, it will probably create new market imbalances. Thus, while stemming from good intentions, this legislation will introduce even more uncertainty among member states.

"I expected, as a first step in the revision of the directive, the ban of landfilling of plastic waste, or the definition of criteria for the mechanical or organic recycling, or at least, the phasing out of non-biodegradable and non-compostable plastic bags"

Some amendments introduce a tax or levy on lightweight plastic bags, believing that a price scheme would discourage their consumption. In my opinion, a tax does not help in raising citizens' awareness on environment-friendly choices, and if the aim is to change their behaviour, we should only make the unsustainable option more expensive. We should raise the price only for the dangerous, non-biodegradable, non-recyclable, non-compostable plastic bags.

This is why I called for an ambitious and specific EU legislation on plastic waste with clear binding targets for collection, sorting and recycling, as well as specific labelling to inform citizens about the characteristics of the products and public campaigns to raise awareness.

I expected, as a first step in the revision of the directive, the ban of landfilling of plastic waste, or the definition of criteria for the mechanical or organic recycling, or at least, the phasing out of non-biodegradable and non-compostable plastic bags.

Unfortunately, this European parliament will not be able to witness the creation of a new model of growth and consumption, the circular economy that takes into account the entire lifecycle of products, a concept that I have promoted through this entire mandate and the previous one. Maybe next time they will get it right.