EU-wide target key to addressing Europe's plastic dependency

The EU must take ambitious Europe-wide action to dramatically reduce the use of disposable plastic bags, writes Margrete Auken.

By Margrete Auken MEP

11 Mar 2014

The consumption of plastic bags in the EU is excessive. Every year nearly 100 billion plastic bags are handed over the counter in shops and supermarkets across Europe. If no action is taken this number is expected to grow to 111 billion by 2020. This means that on average every European uses about 200 plastic bags over the course of a year.

If it takes you five minutes to read this article, in the meantime one million plastic carrier bags will have been consumed in the EU. However, 89 per cent of plastic bags are often only used a single time before ending up as waste.

Whereas thicker plastic bags destined for reuse are available on the market, consumers in many member states continue to use disposable plastic bags because they receive them for free. Retailers hand them out for free because lightweight plastic bags, mainly produced in Asia, are very cheap.

The result is negative and has consequences for both society and the environment. This excessive consumption of single-use plastic bags is not only very inefficient from a resource perspective but also adverse effects the environment. Each year eight billion plastic bags end up as litter in the European environment, including the seas.

Once in the environment, plastic bags can last for hundreds of years, gradually being fragmented to smaller and smaller parts, and carried across national borders and maritime boundaries.

Today, plastic bags together with plastic bottles make up the vast majority of plastic waste in European seas. Plastic debris constitutes more than 70 per cent of all waste. The implications for the marine fauna are dramatic, especially among marine mammals.

The over-consumption of plastic bags, inefficient resource use and transnational pollution of the environment are a common challenge to all EU member states and demand a common approach.

A consultation by the European commission in 2011 showed strong support by European citizens to address the issue of single-use plastic bags at the European level.

Unfortunately, the proposal put forward by the commission fails to take a Europe-wide approach. It merely suggests that each member state should address the issue of plastic bags unilaterally without any target.

This not only ignores the clear request by European citizens, but also stands in stark contrast to the commission's own impact assessment. Indeed, the assessment considers that the most effective approach would be to combine a waste prevention target at EU-level with pricing measures at national level that would make it obligatory for shops to charge for plastic carrier bags.

In the words of the commission this approach "has the highest potential to deliver ambitious environmental results, while achieving positive economic impacts, limiting negative effects on employment, ensuring public acceptance and contributing to wider awareness on sustainable consumption".

The first key element to address the over-use of plastic bags is to introduce an EU-wide reduction target for the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags. Within two years of entry into force of this directive, member states should achieve a reduction of at least 80 per cent.

"While the 80 per cent reduction target within two years seems ambitious at first sight, it has been shown that making consumers pay for plastic bags can reduce consumption dramatically almost overnight"

The target should be based on the average consumption in the EU in 2010. The overall target would be applicable to all member states, but would demand more action in those that have not yet taken action to reduce consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags.

While the 80 per cent reduction target within two years seems ambitious at first sight, it has been shown that making consumers pay for plastic bags can reduce consumption dramatically almost overnight.

One central factor stands out across European countries that have already achieved a comparatively low consumption level of carrier bags: plastic bags are not handed out for free.

This measure should ideally apply across the EU to all carrier bags regardless of the materials of which they have been produced, including paper bags.

Biodegradable plastic materials are often presented as a solution to the environmental problem of plastic carrier bags. While they pose less of a problem when they end up in the environment as compared to conventional plastics, resorting to biodegradable plastics does not address the throw-away mentality that underlies excessive consumption of plastic bags, and may even wrongly legitimise such wasteful use.

Furthermore, they need to be treated properly, and for that, they need to be fully compatible with not only industrial, but also home composting. Therefore, member states that have established separate collection of bio-waste should be allowed to reduce the price charged for biodegradable lightweight plastic carrier bags by up to 50 per cent as compared to conventional ones.

However, biodegradable plastic bags should not be exempted from either reduction targets or price mechanisms.